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CHANCE OF STORMS: Today, Earth is expected to cross through a fold in in the heliospheric current sheet. At about the same time, a minor solar wind stream will hit our planet's magnetic field. The combined effect of these two events could be a polar geomagnetic storm; the odds are 35%, according to NOAA. Arctic sky watchers should be alert for auroras on Jan.12th and 13th. Free: Aurora Alerts
SUNSPOTS VANISH, SPACE WEATHER CONTINUES: So far in 2017, the big story in space weather is sunspots--or rather, the lack thereof. The sun has been blank more than 90% of the time. Only one very tiny spot observed for a few hours on Jan. 3rd interrupted a string of spotless days from New Years through Jan.11th. Devoid of dark cores, yesterday's sun is typical of the year so far:
The last time the sun produced a similar string of spotless days was May of 2010, almost 7 years ago. That was near the end of the previous deep Solar Minimum. The current stretch is a sign that Solar Minimum is coming again. Sunspot numbers rise and fall with an ~11-year period, slowly oscillating between Solar Max and Solar Min. In 2017, the pendulum is swinging toward the bottom.
Contrary to popular belief, space weather does not stop when sunspots vanish. Recent nights are proof: Bright auroras have been dancing around the Arctic Circle. Tom Arne Moldenaes of Norway,Groetfjord, recorded this eruption ("like green lava from a volcano," he says) on Jan. 5th when the face of the sun was completely spotless:
The auroras were sparked by a stream of solar wind flowing from a large hole in the sun's atmosphere. Such "coronal holes" are common during Solar Minimum.
Sunspots are an important source of space weather. They can unleash solar flares, cause radio blackouts and geomagnetic storms. However, equally interesting things happen when sunspots vanish. For instance, the extreme ultraviolet output of the sun plummets. This causes the upper atmosphere of Earth to cool and collapse. With less air "up there" to cause orbital decay, space junk accumulates around our planet.
Also during Solar Minimum, the heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth. Galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system with relative ease. Indeed, a cosmic ray surge is already underway, with implications for astronauts and even ordinary air travelers.
Stay tuned for updates as we enter a new phase of the solar cycle.
Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery
URSUS STRATOSPHERUS: Valentine's Day is coming. To prepare, you might need a space bear. Or two:
To fund their cosmic ray research, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have flown 20 pairs of brown bears to the edge of space. You can have a pair for only $69.95--including the rose, which has been pressed for safekeeping. Each adorable duo comes with Valentine's card showing the bears in flight and certifying their trip to the stratosphere.
More out of this world gifts may be found in the Earth to Sky store. All proceeds support cosmic ray balloon launches and STEM education.
Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery
SKI HALOS: Ski resorts are one of the best places to see sun halos--rings of light that surround the sun when ice crystals fill the air. On Jan. 9th, Stefanie Nopper was riding the cable car to Switzerland's Melchsee-Frutt ski resort when she witnessed this specimen:
"First I saw a tiny rainbow and suddenly I realized, there is more than one... NO, it was an entire HALO!" she says. "I snapped this picture through the window using my iPhone."
Most sun halos are caused by ice crystals floating high above Earth's surface in cirrus clouds. "Ski halos," on the other hand, are formed by ice crystals near the ground, kicked into the air by the action of skis and snow-making machines.
Crystals emerging from snow-making machines can be particularly influential. A variety called "diamond dust" grows slowly downwind of ski-slope snow blowers. These man-made crystals tend to be more optically perfect than natural crystals in clouds, producing extra-bright, extra-sharp halos.
Going skiing? Be alert for halos. More examples may be found in the realtime photo gallery.
Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery
Realtime Airglow Photo Gallery
Realtime Sprite Photo Gallery
Every night, a network of NASA all-sky cameras
scans the skies above the United States for meteoritic fireballs. Automated software maintained by NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office calculates their orbits, velocity, penetration depth in Earth's atmosphere and many other characteristics. Daily results are presented here on Spaceweather.com.
On Jan. 12, 2017, the network reported 9 fireballs.
(8 sporadics, 1 xi Coronae Borealid)
In this diagram of the inner solar system, all of the fireball orbits intersect at a single point--Earth. The orbits are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue). [Larger image] [movies]
Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs
) are space rocks larger than approximately 100m that can come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU. None of the known PHAs is on a collision course with our planet, although astronomers are finding new ones
all the time.
On January 12, 2017 there were potentially hazardous asteroids. Notes: LD means "Lunar Distance." 1 LD = 384,401 km, the distance between Earth and the Moon. 1 LD also equals 0.00256 AU. MAG is the visual magnitude of the asteroid on the date of closest approach.
| ||Cosmic Rays in the Atmosphere |
Readers, thank you for your patience while we continue to develop this new section of Spaceweather.com. We've been working to streamline our data reduction, allowing us to post results from balloon flights much more rapidly, and we have developed a new data product, shown here:
This plot displays radiation measurements not only in the stratosphere, but also at aviation altitudes. Dose rates are expessed as multiples of sea level. For instance, we see that boarding a plane that flies at 25,000 feet exposes passengers to dose rates ~10x higher than sea level. At 40,000 feet, the multiplier is closer to 50x. These measurements are made by our usual cosmic ray payload as it passes through aviation altitudes en route to the stratosphere over California.
What is this all about? Approximately once a week, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus fly space weather balloons to the stratosphere over California. These balloons are equipped with radiation sensors that detect cosmic rays, a surprisingly "down to Earth" form of space weather. Cosmic rays can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1, #2, #3, #4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the general population. Our latest measurements show that cosmic rays are intensifying, with an increase of more than 12% since 2015:
Why are cosmic rays intensifying? The main reason is the sun. Solar storm clouds such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) sweep aside cosmic rays when they pass by Earth. During Solar Maximum, CMEs are abundant and cosmic rays are held at bay. Now, however, the solar cycle is swinging toward Solar Minimum, allowing cosmic rays to return. Another reason could be the weakening of Earth's magnetic field, which helps protect us from deep-space radiation.
The radiation sensors onboard our helium balloons detect X-rays and gamma-rays in the energy range 10 keV to 20 MeV. These energies span the range of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners.
The data points in the graph above correspond to the peak of the Reneger-Pfotzer maximum, which lies about 67,000 feet above central California. When cosmic rays crash into Earth's atmosphere, they produce a spray of secondary particles that is most intense at the entrance to the stratosphere. Physicists Eric Reneger and Georg Pfotzer discovered the maximum using balloons in the 1930s and it is what we are measuring today.
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