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Space Weather Update: 12/15/2015

By, 12/15/2015

POLAR STRATOSPHERIC CLOUDS: An outbreak of polar stratospheric clouds(PMCs) is underway around the Arctic Circle. Unlike normal grey-white clouds, which hug Earth's surface at altitudes of only 5 to 10 km, PMCs float through the stratosphere (25 km) and they are fantastically colorful. Sarah Skinner saw this specimen high above Abisko, Sweden:


"Just as I was heading out to de-ice the car on Dec. 14th, I looked up and noticed the most incredible cloud formation," says Skinner. "At the same time, an excited text came through from my boss, aurora tour guide Chad Blakley, who having lived here for many years has seen this only once or twice and explained to an Arctic newbie like me how rare these formations really are."

Also known as "nacreous" or "mother of pearl" clouds, the icy structures form in the lower stratosphere when temperatures drop to around minus 85ºC. Sunlight shining through tiny ice particles ~10µm across produce the characteristic bright iridescent colors by diffraction and interference. Once thought to be mere curiosities, some PMCs are now known to be associated with the destruction of ozone.

"Nacreous clouds far outshine and have much more vivid colours than ordinary iridescent clouds, which are very much poor relations and seen frequently all over the world," writes atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley. "Once seen they are never forgotten."

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

GEOMAGNETIC STORMS: A co-rotating interaction region (CIR) struck Earth's magnetic field on Dec. 14th, followed shortly thereafter by a high-speed stream of solar wind. The double jolt sparked almost 9 hours of G1-class geomagnetic storms and auroras around the Arctic Circle. Brian Whittaker saw the display from the cockpit of an airplane 35,000 feet above Northern Manitoba, Canada:


"In addition to the auroras, the Geminid meteor shower was very active," says Whittaker.

More auroras are in the offing on Dec. 15th. NOAA forecasters estimate a 60% chance of continued storming as the solar wind continues to blow. Aurora alerts:text or voice

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

THE GEMINID METEOR SHOWER IS UNDERWAY: Canada's Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR) is picking up echoes from the constellation Gemini. It's a sign that the annual Geminid meteor shower is underway. The bright green "hot spot" in this CMOR sky map shows where Geminid meteoroids are hitting the atmosphere:


Geminid meteoroids are gravelly debris from "rock comet" 3200 Phaethon. They hit Earth's atmosphere traveling ~35 km/s (78,000 mph) and typically disintegrate about 80 km (50 miles) above Earth's surface.

Earth is moving through the densest part of the stream today. Under ideal conditions this would produce as many as 120 meteors per hour. Winter weather around the northern hemisphere is, in most places, reducing actual sightings far below that number. Nevertheless, as this photo from Iceland shows, even a single Geminid meteor can make the night worthwhile:


"This fireball appeared over the Vestrahorn mountain in southeast Iceland," says photographer Philip Eaglesfield. "It was a lucky shot. I had just stepped out of my car and set up my camera. If I had arrived a few minutes later, I would have missed it."

In the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a helium balloon into a snowstorm. Carrying a low-light meteor camera, the payload aims to capture Geminid meteors streaking above the clouds:


The flight was sponsored by KOMO TV, an ABC news station in Seattle (another place with cloudy skies). Their generous donation of $500 paid for the helium and other supplies neccessary to get the meteor balloon off the ground. Stay tuned for possible meteor captres from the stratosphere!.

Got clouds? Listen for Geminid echoes in the audio feed from our live meteor radar.

Realtime Meteor Photo Gallery

Realtime Comet Photo Gallery


 All Sky Fireball Network

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

On Dec. 14, 2015, the network reported 148 fireballs.
(107 Geminids, 33 sporadics, 4 sigma Hydrids, 1 December Monocerotid, 1 , 1 Comae Berenicid, 1 December Leonis Minorid)



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]


 Near Earth Asteroids

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 December 15, 2015 there were 1642 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2015 XU169

Dec 10

9.5 LD

16 m

1998 WT24

Dec 11

10.9 LD

1.1 km

2015 XA169

Dec 12

7.4 LD

15 m

2015 XR169

Dec 13

1.3 LD

8 m

2015 XX128

Dec 14

2.4 LD

25 m

2015 XX169

Dec 14

8.4 LD

15 m

2015 XN55

Dec 15

2.5 LD

15 m

2015 XY261

Dec 15

0.8 LD

16 m

2015 XL261

Dec 17

9.7 LD

38 m

2015 XE1

Dec 19

13.2 LD

29 m

2015 XN261

Dec 23

2.6 LD

29 m

2011 YD29

Dec 24

9.7 LD

24 m

2003 SD220

Dec 24

28.4 LD

1.8 km

2008 CM

Dec 29

22.8 LD

1.5 km

2015 XV351

Dec 29

5.3 LD

28 m

2015 XC352

Dec 30

5.2 LD

29 m

2004 MQ1

Jan 2

55.4 LD

1.1 km

1999 JV6

Jan 6

12.6 LD

410 m

1685 Toro

Jan 22

60.9 LD

1.7 km

2001 XR1

Jan 23

74.4 LD

1.5 km

2015 VC2

Jan 28

5.8 LD

15 m

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

Situation Report -- Oct. 30, 2015Stratospheric Radiation (+37o N)

Cosmic ray levels are elevated(+6.1% above the Space Age median). The trend is flat. Cosmic ray levels have increased +0% in the past month.

Sept. 06: 4.14 uSv/hr (414 uRad/hr)

Sept. 12: 4.09 uSv/hr (409 uRad/hr)

Sept. 23: 4.12 uSv/hr (412 uRad/hr)

Sept. 25: 4.16 uSv/hr (416 uRad/hr)

Sept. 27: 4.13 uSv/hr (413 uRad/hr)

Oct. 11: 4.02 uSv/hr (402 uRad/hr)

Oct. 22: 4.11 uSv/hr (411 uRad/hr)

These measurements are based on regular space weather balloon flights: learn more.

Approximately once a week, 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 cloudstrigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Our measurements show that someone flying back and forth across the continental USA, just once, can absorb as much ionizing radiation as 2 to 5 dental X-rays. Here is the data from our latest flight, Oct. 22nd:

Radiation levels peak at the entrance to the stratosphere in a broad region called the "Pfotzer Maximum." This peak is named after physicist George Pfotzer who discovered it using balloons and Geiger tubes in the 1930s. Radiation levels there are more than 80x sea level.

Note that the bottom of the Pfotzer Maximim is near 55,000 ft. This means that some high-flying aircraft are not far from the zone of maximum radiation. Indeed, according to the Oct 22th measurements, a plane flying at 45,000 feet is exposed to 2.79 uSv/hr. At that rate, a passenger would absorb about one dental X-ray's worth of radiation in about 5 hours.

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.

Current Conditions

Solar wind
speed: 540.5 km/sec
density: 2.0 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1309 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B4 
1118 UT Dec15 
24-hr: B5 0010 UT Dec15 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1300 UTDaily Sun: 15 Dec 15Sunspot AR2470 poses a slight threat for M-class solar flares. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 81 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 15 Dec 2015

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 0 days
2015 total: 0 days (0%) 

2014 total: 1 day (<1%)
2013 total: 0 days (0%)
2012 total: 0 days (0%)
2011 total: 2 days (<1%)
2010 total: 51 days (14%)
2009 total: 260 days (71%)

Updated 15 Dec 2015

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 124 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 15 Dec 2015

Current Auroral Oval:

Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 2 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 5 
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 5.9 nT
Bz: 2.5 nT south 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1308 UTCoronal Holes: 15 Dec 15 
Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole should reach Earth on ~Dec. 17th. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds is about to begin. Monitor the daily daisies, below, from NASA's AIM spacecraft for the first wisps of electric blue above Antarctica.

Switch view: Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 12-14-2015 17:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2015 Dec 14 2200 UTC


0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

15 %


05 %

05 %

Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2015 Dec 14 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


40 %

35 %


20 %

10 %


05 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


10 %

15 %


25 %

35 %


60 %

40 %