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Space Weather Update: 01/21/2016

By, 01/21/2016

A NEW 9TH PLANET BEYOND PLUTO? Today, planetary scientists, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown of Caltech announced intriguing evidence for a Neptune-sized planet orbiting the sun beyond Pluto. Sedna and five other objects in the outer solar system are grouped together as if they are being shepherded by a larger body. That body, say Batygin and Brown, is a planet at least 10 times as massive as Earth traveling along an elliptical orbit more than 200 AU from the sun. This is the most persuasive argument so far for the existence of a "Planet X." Until someone actually sees the planet in a telescope, however, it's just a hypothesis. So let the hunt begin! The full story was published in the Jan. 20th edition of Science Magazine.

AURORAS VS. MOONLIGHT: Earth is passing through the wake of a CME that hit our planet earlier this week. On Jan. 20th, the lingering encounter sparked a G1-class geomagnetic storm and bright auroras around the Arctic Circle. Frank Olsen sends this picture from Sortland, Norway:


"Tonight was really amazing!" says Olsen. "Conditions were perfect with new fallen snow and crisp, clear air around -15 degrees C. The landscape was beautifully lit by moonlight."

As Earth exits the wake of the CME on Jan. 21st, the auroras will subside--but not for long. A new disturbance is expected to arrive the very next day. High-speed solar wind flowing from a coronal hole will buffet Earth's magnetic field on Jan. 22ndand 23rd, possibly sparking a new round of Arctic auroras. Visibility may be mitigated by the glare of the waxing full Moon--or, as Olsen's photo shows, maybe not. Monitor the realtime photo gallery for sightings. Aurora alerts: text or voice.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

SOLAR ECLIPSE BALLOON NETWORK: and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have developed a balloon payload that can photograph solar eclipses from the stratosphere. This sets the stage for a one-of-a-kind photography experiment: On August 21, 2017, the Moon will pass in front of the sun over the USA, producing a total eclipse visible from coast to coast. We will launch balloons to record the event from a dozen points along the path of totality:


Floating more than 100,000 feet above the clouds, the balloons will have an unobstructed view of the eclipse. From each of a dozen payloads, one camera will point up to record the sun's ghostly corona while another camera points down to record the passage of the Moon's dark shadow across the landscape below. When the eclipse is finished, we will combine the footage to create a unique video portrait of an eclipse sweeping across the American continent.

The payload has already photographed a partial solar eclipse in Oct. 2014: images. To test the payload under conditions of totality, a team of students and parents from Earth to Sky Calculus will travel to Indonesia six weeks from now to observe the March 9, 2016, total eclipse: animated map. Stay tuned for news from their expedition!

Readers, would you like to join the Solar Eclipse Balloon Network? Starting now we are recruiting teams of citizen scientists who we will train in the art of high-altitude ballooning to become members of the solar eclipse launch crews. Schools, scout troops, home school families and others are welcome to apply. This is a great way for novices to learn ballooning and to participate in authentic science. We will also be seeking sponsors for the 12 payloads. Contact Dr. Tony Phillips to register your interest.

Realtime Spaceweather Photo Gallery

MOONDUST-COLORED CONTRAIL: On Jan. 18th, Pete Lardizabal pointed his camera at the clear blue sky over St Johns, Florida, to photograph the waxing gibbous Moon. Just as he depressed the shutter, a plane flew by. Although the Moon was more than a quarter of a million miles behind the plane, the flyby appeared to kick up a plume of moondust:


Atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley explains what happened: "The turbulent exhaust stream of the 'moonside' engine is refracting and scattering light from the Moon, creating a 'moondust-colored contrail.' The trail can be seen crossing the Moon itself. Likely the other engine is producing an equally turbulent exhaust trail. However, its angular distance from the Moon's limb is too large for any lunar light to be scattered towards the camera."

The Moon will be full on Jan. 23-24. According to folklore, it is the "Wolf Moon." Monitor the realtime photo gallery for moonshots as more cameras turn toward the dusty orb in the days ahead.

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 Jan. 20, 2016, the network reported 19 fireballs.
(18 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]


 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 January 21, 2016 there were 1654 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2015 YC2

Jan 15

4.9 LD

88 m

2016 AF166

Jan 21

9.3 LD

37 m

1685 Toro

Jan 22

60.9 LD

1.7 km

2001 XR1

Jan 23

74.4 LD

1.5 km

2016 BU

Jan 23

5.8 LD

20 m

2015 VC2

Jan 28

5.8 LD

15 m

2016 BE

Feb 1

5.9 LD

103 m

2015 XA379

Feb 7

8.1 LD

38 m

2016 BQ

Feb 7

11.1 LD

19 m

2013 VA10

Feb 7

8.5 LD

165 m

2014 QD364

Feb 7

14 LD

16 m

2014 EK24

Feb 14

13.8 LD

94 m

2010 LJ14

Feb 16

68.5 LD

1.2 km

1999 YK5

Feb 19

51.7 LD

2.0 km

2010 WD1

Feb 22

12.3 LD

22 m

1991 CS

Feb 23

65.5 LD

1.4 km

2011 EH17

Mar 1

11.1 LD

52 m

2013 TX68

Mar 5

1.3 LD

38 m

2001 PL9

Mar 9

77.6 LD

1.2 km

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: 485.0 km/sec
density: 1.4 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1430 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: C1 
1351 UT Jan21 
24-hr: C2 0145 UT Jan21 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1400 UTDaily Sun: 21 Jan 16Growing sunspot AR2487 poses a threat for minor C-class solar flares. Overall, solar activity remains low. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 59 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 21 Jan 2016

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 0 days
2016 total: 0 days (0%) 
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 21 Jan 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 100 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 21 Jan 2016

Current Auroral Oval:

Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 3 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 6 
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 6.7 nT
Bz: 1.3 nT south 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1430 UTCoronal Holes: 21 Jan 16 
A stream of solar wind flowing from this southern coronal hole could reach Earth as early as Jan. 22. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds began on Dec. 13, 2015. The coverage of NLCs over Antarctica is rapidly multiplying in 2016.

Switch view: Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 01-20-2016 15:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 Jan 20 2200 UTC


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05 %

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01 %

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Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2016 Jan 20 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

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24-48 hr


20 %

25 %


05 %

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01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

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25 %

35 %


25 %

30 %