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Reporting System

Unexpected Display of Aurora Stuns Observers

QUIET SUN: With no sunspots actively flaring, the sun’s output has flatlined again.

NOAA forecasters put the chance of an M-class flare during the next 24 hours at no more than 1%. Solar activity should remain low.

AURORA WHIRLPOOL: On Feb. 14-15, Arctic skies erupted with an unexpected display of auroras that veteran observers said was among the best in months. At the height of the event, a US Defense Meteorological Program satellite photographed a whirlpool of Northern Lights over the Bering Sea:

“A number of images from the DMSP F18 satellite captured the dramatic auroral event of the last couple nights,” says analyst Paul McCrone, who processed the data at the US Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey, CA.

The reason for the outburst is still not completely clear. It started on Feb. 14th when a magnetic disturbance rippled around the north pole. No CME was obvious in local solar wind data at the time; the disturbance just happened. Once begun, the display was amplified by the actions of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). The IMF near Earth tipped south, opening a crack in our planet’s magnetic defenses. Solar wind poured in and fueled the auroras.

more images: from Göran Strand of Östersund, Sweden; from Heidi Pinkerton of Birch Lake, Babbitt, Minnesota; from Roger Schneider of Tromso, Norway; from Hanneke Luijting of Tromsø, Norway; from Peter Rosén of Abisko NP, Sweden; from Jesper Grønne of Silkeborg Denmark

…(Space Weather)

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February 17, 2012 Posted by | Solar, Space | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

NASA Releases New Videos of the United States from the ISS

THE VIEW FROM ABOVE: On Friday, Feb. 10th, NASA released a new set of videos from the International Space Station that officials said was among “the most spectacular night imagery ever taken from space of the United States.” After watching the following movie (48 MB), you might find it hard to disagree:

NASA describes the footage: “The sequence of shots was taken January 30, 2012 from 06:13:36 to 06:23:09 GMT, on a pass from northern Mexico to northwest New Brunswick. The video begins looking northeast over Texas, where cities like San Antonio, Houston, and the Dallas/Fort Worth area can be seen. Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and St. Louis are easily distinguished as the ISS continues northeast over the Great Plains.

The video concludes with Chicago illuminating the southern edge of Lake Michigan, and auroras shimmering in the distance over Canada.”

The auroras in the video appeared on a relatively uneventful night, geomagnetically speaking, when a CME completely missed Earth. Apparently, even the quiet nights are spellbinding onboard the ISS. Aurora alerts: textvoice.

…(Space Weather)

February 11, 2012 Posted by | Space | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Solar Activity Picks Up, Mars Approach Nears

NORTHEASTERN ERUPTION: Solar activity is picking up. During the late hours of Feb. 9th, a dark magnetic filament winding over the sun’s northeastern limb rose up and exploded. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the action:

The eruption hurled a bright coronal mass ejection (CME) away from the sun: SOHO movie

The expanding cloud is not heading for Earth, but in a day or so it might make contact with Venus, which appears to be in the line of fire.

The emergence of a new sunspot at the root of the erupting filament plus the rapid growth of existing sunspot AR1416 could foreshadow more activity in the days ahead.

MOON-MARS: Mars is approaching Earth for a close encounter in early March. Already the Red Planet is five times brighter than a 1st-magnitude star. Solar flare alerts: textvoice.

February 10, 2012 Posted by | Science, Solar, Space | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Surface of Mars an Unlikely Place for Life After 600-Million Year Drought, Says Scientists

Mars may have been arid for more than 600 million years, making it too hostile for any life to survive on the planet’s surface, according to researchers who have been carrying out the painstaking task of analysing individual particles of Martian soil. Dr Tom Pike, from Imperial College London, will discuss the team’s analysis at a European Space Agency (ESA) meeting on 7 February 2012.

The researchers have spent three years analysing data on Martian soil that was collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission to Mars. Phoenix touched down in the northern arctic region of the planet to search for signs that it was habitable and to analyse ice and soil on the surface.

The results of the soil analysis at the Phoenix site suggest the surface of Mars has been arid for hundreds of millions of years, despite the presence of ice and the fact that previous research has shown that Mars may have had a warmer and wetter period in its earlier history more than three billion years ago. The team also estimated that the soil on Mars had been exposed to liquid water for at most 5,000 years since its formation billions of years ago. They also found that Martian and Moon soil is being formed under the same extremely dry conditions.

Satellite images and previous studies have proven that the soil on Mars is uniform across the planet, which suggests that the results from the team’s analysis could be applied to all of Mars. This implies that liquid water has been on the surface of Mars for far too short a time for life to maintain a foothold on the surface.

“We found that even though there is an abundance of ice, Mars has been experiencing a super-drought that may well have lasted hundreds of millions of years. We think the Mars we know today contrasts sharply with its earlier history, which had warmer and wetter periods and which may have been more suited to life. Future NASA and ESA missions that are planned for Mars will have to dig deeper to search for evidence of life, which may still be taking refuge underground.”

During the Phoenix mission, Dr Pike and his research group formed one of 24 teams based at mission control in the University of Arizona in the USA, operating part of the spacecraft’s onboard laboratories. They analysed soil samples dug up by a robot arm, using an optical microscope to produce images of larger sand-sized particles, and an atomic-force microscope to produce 3D images of the surface of particles as small as 100 microns across. Since the end of the mission, the team has been cataloguing individual particle sizes to understand more about the history of the Martian soil.

They estimated that the soil had only been exposed to liquid water for a maximum of 5,000 years by comparing their data with the slowest rate that clays could form on Earth.

The team found further evidence to support the idea that Martian soil has been largely dry throughout its history by comparing soil data from Mars, Earth and the Moon. The researchers deduced that the soil was being formed in a similar way on Mars and the Moon because they were able to match the distribution of soil particle sizes. On Mars, the team inferred that physical weathering by the wind as well as meteorites breaks down the soil into smaller particles. On the Moon, meteorite impacts break down rocks into soil, as there is no liquid water or atmosphere to wear down the particles.

…(Science Daily)

February 3, 2012 Posted by | Science, Space | , , , , | Leave a comment

Super-Earth Detected within Habitable Zone of Nearby Cold Star

An artistic conception of the two planets reported on in this paper: b and c. Planet c is the one that lies in the habitable zone of the star. Planet b is too hot to be habitable. (Credit: Images courtesy of Guillem Anglada-Escud)

An international team of scientists led by Carnegie’s Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler has discovered a potentially habitable super-Earth orbiting a nearby star. The star is a member of a triple star system and has a different makeup than our Sun, being relatively lacking in metallic elements. This discovery demonstrates that habitable planets could form in a greater variety of environments than previously believed.

The team used public data from the European Southern Observatory and analyzed it with a novel data analysis method. They also incorporated new measurements from the Keck Observatory’s High Resolution Echelle Spectrograph and the new Carnegie Planet Finder Spectrograph at the Magellan II Telescope.

Their planet-finding technique involved measuring the small wobbles in a star’s orbit in response to a planet’s gravity. Anglada-Escudé and his team focused on an M-class dwarf star called GJ 667C, which is 22 light years away. It is a member of a triple-star system. The other two stars (GJ 667AB) are a pair of orange K dwarfs, with a concentration of heavy elements only 25% that of our Sun’s. Such elements are the building blocks of terrestrial planets so it was thought to be unusual for metal-depleted star systems to have an abundance of low mass planets.

GJ 667C had previously been observed to have a super-Earth (GJ 667Cb) with a period of 7.2 days, although this finding was never published. This orbit is too tight, and thus hot, to support life. The new study started with the aim of obtaining the orbital parameters of this super-Earth.

But in addition to this first candidate, the research team found the clear signal of a new planet (GJ 667Cc) with an orbital period of 28.15 days and a minimum mass of 4.5 times that of Earth. The new planet receives 90% of the light that Earth receives. However, because most of its incoming light is in the infrared, a higher percentage of this incoming energy should be absorbed by the planet. When both these effects are taken into account, the planet is expected to absorb about the same amount of energy from its star that Earth absorbs from the Sun. This would allow surface temperatures similar to Earth and perhaps liquid water, but this extreme cannot be confirmed without further information on the planet’s atmosphere.

“This planet is the new best candidate to support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it,” Anglada-Escudé said.

The team notes that the system might also contain a gas-giant planet and an additional super-Earth with an orbital period of 75 days. However, further observations are needed to confirm these two possibilities. “With the advent of a new generation of instruments, researchers will be able to survey many M dwarf stars for similar planets and eventually look for spectroscopic signatures of life in one of these worlds.”

…(Science Daily)

February 3, 2012 Posted by | Science, Space | , , , , | Leave a comment

Rare ‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse to be Visible from North America

Get out your calendar and make a big exclamation point on May 20.

That’s when an annular solar eclipse will turn the sun into a ring of fire.

This is the first solar eclipse visible from the United States in about 18 years, according to NASA. We’ve had our share of lunar eclipses in recent years, but solar eclipses happen when the moon passes in front of the sun, obscuring it from view.

The “ring of fire” effect will be visible as far north as Medford, Oregon and as far south as Lubbock, Texas. Throughout the zone –called the “path of annularity” – sky watchers will see the sun transformed into a a bright doughnut-like object.

The rest of the country west of the Mississippi (including Seattle) will witness a partial eclipse. That’s when the sun appears to be crescent-shaped as the moon passes by off-center.

NASA wants to remind you that this is not a total eclipse — when the moon entirely obscures the sun from view. The next total eclipse visible from the US happens in 2017. (Again, mark your calendar.)

…(Seattlepi)

February 2, 2012 Posted by | Science, Solar, Space | , , , , | Leave a comment

The USGS Monitors Earth’s Magnetic Field to Prepare for Magnetic Storms

Everyone is familiar with weather systems on Earth like rain, wind and snow. But space weather – variable conditions in the space surrounding Earth – has important consequences for our lives inside Earth’s atmosphere.

Solar activity occurring miles outside Earth’s atmosphere, for example, can trigger magnetic storms on Earth. These storms are visually stunning, but they can set our modern infrastructure spinning.

On Jan. 19, scientists saw a solar flare in an active region of the Sun, along with a concentrated blast of solar-wind plasma and magnetic field lines known as a coronal mass ejection that burst from the Sun’s surface and appeared to be headed for Earth. When these solar winds met Earth’s magnetic field, the interaction created one of the largest magnetic storms on Earth recorded in the past few years. The storm peaked on Jan. 24, just as another storm began.

“These new storms, and the storm we witnessed on Sept 26, 2011, indicate the up-tick in activity coming with the Earth’s ascent into the next solar maximum,” said USGS geophysicist Jeffrey Love.” This solar maximum is the period of greatest activity in the solar cycle of the Sun, and it is predicted to occur sometime in 2013, which will increase the amount of magnetic storms on Earth.

Magnetic storms, said Love, are a space weather phenomenon responsible for the breathtaking lights of the aurora borealis, but also sometimes for the disruption of technology and infrastructure our modern society depends on. Large magnetic storms, for example, can interrupt radio communication, interfere with global-positioning systems, disrupt oil and gas well drilling, damage satellites and affect their operations, and even cause electrical blackouts by inducing voltage surges in electric power grids.

Storms can also affects airline activity — as a result of last weekend’s  storm, both Air Canada and Delta Air Lines rerouted flights over the Arctic bound for Asia as a precautionary measure. Although the storm began on the 19th of January, it did not peak until January 24th.

…(USGS)

January 31, 2012 Posted by | Solar, Space | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunspot Region 1402 Unleashes X2 Class Flare, Not Earth-Directed

X-FLARE: Departing sunspot 1402 unleashed an X2-class solar flare on Jan. 27th at 18:37 UT. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the extreme ultraviolet flash.

Sunspot 1402 is rotating onto the far side of the sun, so the blast site was not facing Earth. Nevertheless, energetic protons accelerated by the blast are now surrounding our planet, and an S2-class radiation storm is in progress.

The explosion also produced a spectacular coronal mass ejection (CME). A movie from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows the cloud raced away from the sun at 2500 km/s or 5.6 million mph. Update: Work by analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab shows that the CME will just miss Earth when its edge passes by our planet on Jan. 30-31.

January 28, 2012 Posted by | Radiation, Solar, Space | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunspot Region 1402 Unleashes M9 Class Flare with Earth-Directed CME

ALMOST-X FLARE AND CME (UPDATED): This morning, Jan. 23rd around 0359 UT, big sunspot 1402 erupted, producing a long-duration M9-class solar flare. The explosion’s M9-ranking puts it on the threshold of being an X-flare, the most powerful kind. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the flare’s extreme ultraviolet flash:

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA’s STEREO-B spacecraft detected a CME rapidly emerging from the blast site: movie. Analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab say the leading edge of the CME will reach Earth on Jan. 24 at 14:18UT (+/- 7 hours). Their animated forecast track shows that Mars is in the line of fire, too; the CME will hit the Red Planet during the late hours of Jan. 25. Aurora alerts: textvoice.

This is a relatively substantial and fast-moving (2200 km/s) CME. Spacecraft in geosynchronous, polar and other orbits passing through Earth’s ring current and auroral regions could be affected by the cloud’s arrival. In addition, strong geomagnetic storms are possible, so high-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras. Magnetic storm alerts: textvoice.

RADIATION STORM IN PROGRESS: Solar protons accelerated by this morning’s M9-class solar flare are streaming past Earth. On the NOAA scale of radiation storms, this one ranks S3, which means it could, e.g., cause isolated reboots of computers onboard Earth-orbiting satellites and interfere with polar radio communications. An example of satellite effects: The “snow” in this SOHO coronagraph movie is caused by protons hitting the observatory’s onboard camera.

…(Space Weather)

January 23, 2012 Posted by | Solar, Space | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CME from M3-Class Solar Flare Hits Earth

A coronal mass ejection expected to hit Earth’s magnetic field early Jan 22nd, has finally hit.

Due to the CME being initially delayed, NOAA forecasters decided to downgrade the chance of polar geomagnetic storms to 10% – 25%

You can be sure to expect some nice photos of aurora as the day progresses. At the time of typing this, solar winds are measuring 432.3 km/sec, with 54.5 protons per cubic centimetre, a considerable rise in proton density, but not as high as it was earlier, measuring close to 70. As well, there is a noticeable uptick of ionospheric absorption, but nothing warranting major storm conditions. The KP Index currently measures at 4, and may reach 5 from the look of things as the CME continues to strengthen and taper away. As with all geomagnetic storms, watch how the tectonic plates respond, and be aware of the aurora. One good alert system is from Space Weather – Aurora alerts: textvoice.

To view ionospheric convection, proton density, the current geomagnetic conditions, etc, please visit NICT’s Real-time Magnetosphere Simulation.

January 22, 2012 Posted by | Solar, Space | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment