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DOES ALIEN LIFE FEED ON COSMIC RAYS? The discovery in South Africa of a microbe that gets energy from radioactive uranium has astrobiologists wondering ... could microbes in space feed on cosmic rays? Theoretically, high-energy cosmic rays could trigger the same kind of biotic chemistry that sustains Desulforudis audaxviator in South Africa's Mponeng gold mine. This would make any planet with weak shielding from cosmic rays--or even space itself--a potential habitat for cousins of D. audaxviator. Get the full story from Science magazine.
THE INTERCONTINENTAL SWx BALLOON NETWORK: For the past 2 years, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been launching "space weather balloons" to measure cosmic rays in the atmosphere. Regular flights over California show that atmospheric radiation is intensifying in response to changes in the solar cycle. Now, our monitoring program is going global. In recent months we have been developing launch sites in multiple US states as well as South America and Europe. This is what the Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network looks like in October 2016:
Recent additions expand our coverage north of the Arctic Circle (Sweden) and closer to the core of the South Atlantic Anomaly (Argentina). We also hope to add a site in Antarctica in early 2018.
Why launch balloons from so many places? Deep-space cosmic rays bombard Earth from all directions, day and night. A single launch site is not enough to reveal the uneven shielding of our planet's magnetic field and the complicated response of our atmosphere to changes in solar activity.
Our first test of the network validated these ideas. During a 48 hour period from August 20th-22nd we launched 4 balloons in quick succession from southern Chile, California, Oregon, and Washington. The ascending payloads sampled atmospheric radiation (X-rays and gamma-rays, 10 keV - 20 MeV) from ground level to the stratosphere over a geographical range of more than 10,000 km. Here are the results:
The curves show radiation levels vs. altitude for each of the four sites. Numbers in parentheses are magnetic latitude--a measure of distance from Earth's magnetic equator.
At a glance, we can see that atmospheric radiation is a strong function of magnetic latitude. Washington State at +53o registered more than twice the dose rate of southern Chile at -29o. Why is Washington so high? Of all the sites, it is closest to Earth's magnetic north pole, which provides less shielding against incoming cosmic rays. The more interesting question may be, Why is Chile so low? The Chilean balloon flew into the outskirts of the South Atlantic Anomaly, a zone of high space radiation. Bob Schaefer of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, who recently mapped the South Atlantic Anomaly from space, has a possible answer: "Earth's magnetic field lines over central South America are nearly horizontal, which deflects lower energy vertically downward particles before they make it to your balloon's detector."
To explore these findings further, we are planning additional network launches every month from now on, adding new sites as often as possible. A launch planned from inside the Arctic Circle in January 2017 is especially noteworthy. Stay tuned for updates from the Intercontinental SWx Balloon Network.
A BIRTHDAY CARD AT THE EDGE OF SPACE: Yesterday was Breeana Gilbert's birthday. To celebrate, her fiancé Joseph Nick sponsored a cosmic ray balloon and used it to fly this special birthday card to the edge of space:
"I wanted to give her a unique gift--one that is as beautiful as she is," says Joseph. "This card expressed how much I love her and look forward to our lives together exploring this fragile, beautiful blue dot that we call Earth."
The card flew to an altitude of 35.3 km (115,800 ft), and parachuted back to Earth on Oct. 4, 2016, landing in the Grapevine Mountains near Death Valley National Park. In addition to this snapshot, and the card itself, Breeana is receiving a complete HD video of the flight.
Joseph's birthday gift to Breeana was also a gift to our radiation monitoring program. His sponsorship of the Oct 4th balloon flight made it possible for us to launch an array of cosmic ray sensors to the stratosphere. Thank you, Joseph!
Readers, if you would like to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about atmospheric radiation and see your own photo or card at the edge of space, please contact Dr. Tony Phillips to sponsor a flight. Sponsorships are currently available for flights scheduled on Oct. 29th, Nov. 6th, and Nov. 12th.
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| ||Cosmic Rays in the Atmosphere |
Updated: Sept. 29 2016 // Next Flight: Oct. 1, 2016
Sept. 20, 2016: 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.
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 Oct. 8, 2016, the network reported 19 fireballs.
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 October 8, 2016 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.
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