ASTRONOMY ALERTS: Looking for a unique and affordable gift? Give the heavens for Christmas at Spaceweather PHONE.
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BIG INTERSTELLAR DISCOVERY: The solar system is passing through an interstellar cloud that physics says should not exist. In the Dec. 24th issue of Nature, a team of scientists reveal how NASA's Voyager spacecraft have solved the mystery. Get the full story from Science@NASA.
OH, CHRISTMAS TREE: A few days ago near Anchorage, Alaska, Shawn Standley went out to search for the perfect Christmas tree. A helpful column of light led him right to it:
"This spruce tree and a flock of passing waxwings was highlighted by a setting sun pillar," says Standley. "It was a beautiful sight."
Sun pillars are caused by ice in the air. Plate-shaped ice crystals flutter down from freezing clouds like leaves falling from trees. They act like thousands of little mirrors reflecting the light of the setting sun into a towering pillar--or Christmas-tree finder, as the case may be.
Look for sun pillars at dawn or dusk when the air is cold and the sun is hanging low. 'tis the season!
SOLAR POWER: The sun is in the pits of the deepest solar minimum in a century. For the past two years, sunspots have been rare and solar flares almost nonexistant. Fortunately, the warmth of the sun does not come from sunspots. While sunspot numbers have dropped to record lows, the total luminosity of the sun has barely changed at all, dropping less than about 0.1%.
Indeed, says English nature photographer Andrew Greenwood, "although the winter air here in Cheshire is frigid, the sun's warmth can still be felt, and shows its presence through the melting of snow." To illustrate the point in an artistic way, he took this picture yesterday using a Nikon D50:
"Here we see our world reflected in a tiny droplet of meltwater," he continues. "The surface curvature of the droplet was such that the sun appeared twice! It just goes to show that wondrous optical effects can be seen even on the smallest scale."
Take a closer look. Sunshine is powerful stuff, indeed.
December Northern Lights Gallery
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Explore the Sunspot Cycle