Halloween night, 2003. Four-year old Vincent Ledvina was trick-or-treating with his parents in Maplewood, Minn. Strange lights danced in the night sky, young Ledvina noticed. Those lights were Auroras, otherworldly phenomena produced by powerful solar bursts, dazzling observers in a display that became known as the Halloween Storms of 2003.
“Even at age 4, I knew what the Aurora was and what the Northern Lights were,” said Ledvina, now a rising senior majoring in physics at the University of North Dakota. “That memory stayed with me ever since.”
As he grew, so did his fascination with these light whirls and the dark sky. Throughout the years, when camping with his family in places far from light pollution, he would also gaze at the Milky Way – a long, vast, hazy streak across the star-speckled sky.
“Some 80 to 90 percent of people in the U.S. have never seen the Milky Way,” Ledvina said. “Once you see it, it changes you forever. You get a whole new perspective on the universe. You feel humbled by the vastness of it all. The experience puts everything in a new light, and you realize we're all members of the same species, just floating on a rock in space.”
UND really encourages students to get involved with research right away.
So, armed with an old camera his father gifted him, Ledvina started snapping pictures of the Northern Lights and the Milky Way, capturing the magic of the skies. Since then, he has become an authority in astrophotography, the craft of taking images of celestial events. Ledvina shares his passion – and technical expertise – on his YouTube channel Apalapse, which is followed by more than 150,000 people.
Some of his clips have amassed more than half a million views. A professor in Australia uses his videos to teach photography. But, for Ledvina, the universe is not just art. It is science, too. He first ventured into solar physics research as a freshman at UND.
“UND really encourages students to get involved with research right away,” he said.
Ledvina’s astrophysics training and skill earned him a spot in Research Experience for Undergraduates, a prestigious program funded by the National Science Foundation. In the program, he worked at the National Solar Observatory in Boulder, Colo., where he studied solar flares and radio bursts that can hurt satellites and astronauts.
Ledvina is also a member of Aurorasaurus, a NASA-led citizen science project that tracks Auroras. On YouTube, an astrophotography camera system that he developed (with the backing of UND and NASA) delivers a live 4k stream of the North Dakota sky, which often lights up with Auroras in the fall and winter.
“We can see Auroras in North Dakota more frequently than people expect,” he said. “You don't have to go to Alaska or Iceland. You could see it here. A lot of students at UND could also benefit from that, because it's such a cool phenomenon. It's a beautiful spectacle.”
Soon to start his senior year at UND, Ledvina is the president of the UND Astronomy Club, a member of the Northern Sky Astronomical Society, and stem ambassador for the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium.
“These activities are another way for me to help other people and pursue a greater-good mission, as well,” Ledvina said.
Focused on this personal goal, he is now contemplating a career in Space and solar research with an emphasis on national defense.