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Space Weather Update: 02/20/2016

By, 02/20/2016

THE SNOW MOON: There's a full Moon on Monday night, Feb. 22nd. According to folklore, it has a special name--the "Snow Moon." On average, February is the snowiest month in the USA. Full moonlight reflecting from a snow-covered landscape can make the night very bright, indeed. Monitor the photo gallery for moonshots.

AURORA OUTBURST: Earth is slowly exiting a solar wind stream that has sparked bright auroras around the Arctic Circle for the past three days. "On Feb. 17th, the auroras lasted all night long," reports Sacha Layos of Fairbanks, Alaska. This, she says, was the highlight:


"The outburst lasted less than 4 minutes," says Layos. "It was magnificent."

What makes this solar wind stream such a prolific producer of auroras? The answer lies in its magnetic field. Forecasters call it a "negative polarity stream." In other words, the magnetic field of the solar wind tends to point in a direction which opposes Earth's magnetic field: North vs. South. This mismatch opens a crack in our planet's magnetosphere. Solar wind pours in to fuel bright Northern Lights.

The odds of auroras are declining as Earth exits the solar wind stream. NOAA forecasters estimate a 50% chance of geomagnetic storms today, declining to 30% on Feb. 20th. Aurora alerts: text or voice

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

RED RAINBOW: Rainbows are normally red, yellow, green and blue--in short, allthe colors of a rainbow. But the towering rainbow Jan Koeman photographed from Kloetinge, the Netherlands, on Feb. 18th was simply red:


"I have never seen such a rainbow before," says Koeman. "It appeared just a few minutes after a red sunrise."

What made the rainbow red? It was only color available. All of the other colors of the rainbow had been scattered away by air molecules and dust particles in front of the low-hanging sun.

Koeman notes another puzzle: Rainbows require raindrops, "but it was not raining at all!" he says. Atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley thinks the raindrops were there, in the distance. "There could be rain on the horizon or virga. Virga is cloud precipitation that does not reach the ground," says Cowley.

Red rainbows are more common than you might think. They appear with frequency at sunrise or sunset, all around the world. More examples may be found in the realtime photo gallery:

Realtime Spaceweather 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 Feb. 20, 2016, the network reported 2 fireballs.
(2 sporadics)



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 February 20, 2016 there were 1680 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 BE

Feb 1

5.9 LD

86 m

2016 BA15

Feb 1

2.9 LD

19 m

2015 XA379

Feb 7

8.1 LD

38 m

2016 BQ

Feb 7

11.1 LD

21 m

2014 QD364

Feb 7

14 LD

16 m

2013 VA10

Feb 8

12.5 LD

165 m

2016 BQ15

Feb 8

8.5 LD

44 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

0.044 LD

30 m

2001 PL9

Mar 9

77.6 LD

1.2 km

2010 FX9

Mar 19

6.9 LD

62 m


Mar 21

13.9 LD

0 m

2016 BA14

Mar 22

9.2 LD

540 m

1993 VA

Mar 23

59.6 LD

1.6 km

2001 XD

Mar 28

64.5 LD

1.0 km

2016 BC14

Mar 29

9.9 LD

280 m

2002 AJ29

Apr 6

55.2 LD

1.5 km

2002 EB3

Apr 8

55.6 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. For example, here is the data from a flight on Oct. 22, 2015:

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: 452.1 km/sec
density: 0.6 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1601 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B2 
1302 UT Feb20 
24-hr: B9 0658 UT Feb20 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1500 UTDaily Sun: 20 Feb 16None of these sunspots poses a threat for strong solar flares. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 42 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 20 Feb 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 20 Feb 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 94 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 20 Feb 2016

Current Auroral Oval:

Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 1 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 3 
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 3.7 nT
Bz: 0.2 nT north 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1601 UTCoronal Holes: 20 Feb 16 
Earth is inside a stream of solar wind flowing from this southern coronal hole. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds began on Dec. 13, 2015. It is expected to end in late February 2016.

Switch view: Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 02-12-2016 16:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 Feb 19 2200 UTC


0-24 hr

24-48 hr


05 %

05 %


01 %

01 %

Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2016 Feb 19 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

10 %


05 %

05 %


01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


20 %

15 %


25 %

20 %


20 %

20 %