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Space Weather Update: 03/15/2016

By, 03/15/2016

CIR HITS EARTH, SPARKS AURORAS: Pi Day ended with an explosion of color. During the late hours of March 14th (3.14), a co-rotating interaction region (CIR) hit Earth's magnetic field, sparking bright auroras around the Arctic Circle. Sarah Skinner photographed the display from Abisko, Sweden:


"After a rainy day, the clouds broke. Nothing could have prepared me for the colors I was then about to witness!!" says Skinner. "As the aurora developed the most intense reds I have ever seen appeared. Reds, purples, greens, so many colors; I could not believe what I was seeing."

CIRs are transition zones between slow- and fast-moving solar wind streams. Solar wind plasma piles up in these regions, producing density gradients and shock waves that tend to ignite auroras when they strike Earth's magnetic field.

The CIR has passed, but more lights are in the offing. Earth is moving into a stream of high-speed solar wind following behind the CIR. In response, NOAA forecasters say there is a 65% chance of polar geomagnetic storms on March 15th. Aurora alerts: text or voice

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

THE GHOSTLY CORONA, REVEALED: One of the great attractions of a total eclipse is the chance to see something usually invisible to the human eye: the sun's ghostly corona. Normally overwhelmed by the glare of the solar disk, the gossamer outer atmosphere of our star reveals itself only when the Moon intervenes. On March 9th in Indonesia, it revealed itself in richly-textured detail:


This remarkable picture was taken by a team of undergraduate researchers observing the total eclipse from Tanjung Pandan (Belitung Island). Matt Penn of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, explains:

"In preparation for the 2017 'Great American Eclipse,' and to train some undergraduates who will be in the path of that event, we sent 5 teams to Indonesia with help from NASA funding with the equipment we hope to use next year in the USA. The goal was to take white light coronal images at high cadence. This first-look image from one of the sites shows that we succeeded."

Studying the corona is important because it is a primary source of space weather. The solar wind emerges from the corona, as do coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which can spark strong geomagnetic storms when they hit Earth.

Spacecraft such as STEREO and SOHO are equipped with coronagraphs that block the sun's glare; but no man-made coronagraph is as good as the Moon. "The field of view of space coronagraphs does not include the lower regions of the corona, becase blocking the sun is difficult in the presence of spacecraft jitter," says Penn. "That's why we love solar eclipses."

"One of our science targets is the dynamics of the polar plumes above the north and south coronal holes," Penn continues. "There is evidence that in these denser regions there are periodic or quasi-periodic enhancements which propagate outward from the sun."

"The undergraduate students involved in this project are Sarah Kovac, Logan Jensen, Honor Hare and Myles McKay," says Penn."Their mentors are Bob Baer, Michael Pierce, Richard Gelderman and Don Walter. None of this team had ever seen a solar eclipse before, and none of the students had ever traveled outside the USA. Now they are returning with world-class observations of the solar corona. Congratulations!"

March 9th Solar Eclipse Photo Gallery

VAN GOGH CLOUDS: Peter Lowenstein lives in Mutare, Zimbabwe. For a few minutes last Friday, he felt as if he were transported from Africa into a painting by Vincent van Gogh. "Just before sunset," says Lowenstein, "a thin band of wavy clouds developed above a cumulonimbus anvil and became iridescent." He snapped this picture:


These clouds, sometimes called "billow clouds," are produced by the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability when horizontal layers of air brush by one another at different velocities. It is widely believed that these waves in the sky inspired the swirls in van Gogh's masterpiece The Starry Night.

The delicate pastel colors of the waves come from irridescence--the diffraction of sunlight by tiny water droplets in the clouds. As the sun set, the colors faded to gray, returning Lowenstein to his porch in Zimbabwe.

More photos that can transport you to strange and beautiful places may be found in the realtime 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 Mar. 15, 2016, the network reported 18 fireballs.
(18 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 March 15, 2016 there were 1687 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 EL27

Mar 10

10.9 LD

23 m

2016 EB1

Mar 10

5.4 LD

39 m

2016 EV84

Mar 10

6.8 LD

19 m

2016 EU28

Mar 12

6.5 LD

27 m

2016 EJ27

Mar 12

9.7 LD

38 m

2016 EM156

Mar 16

1.4 LD

13 m

2016 ES85

Mar 16

3.1 LD

5 m

2016 EW85

Mar 16

1.4 LD

13 m

2016 EF156

Mar 17

6.7 LD

49 m

2016 ES155

Mar 17

5.7 LD

64 m

2010 FX9

Mar 19

6.9 LD

62 m


Mar 21

13.9 LD

0 m


Mar 22

9.2 LD

0 m

1993 VA

Mar 23

59.6 LD

1.6 km

2016 CY135

Mar 23

13.9 LD

60 m

2016 EQ1

Mar 24

8.3 LD

26 m

2001 XD

Mar 28

64.5 LD

1.0 km

2016 EK156

Mar 29

13.9 LD

49 m

2016 BC14

Mar 29

9.8 LD

275 m

2002 AJ29

Apr 6

55.2 LD

1.5 km

2002 EB3

Apr 8

55.6 LD

1.2 km

2009 KJ

Apr 10

37.7 LD

1.6 km

2005 GR33

Apr 13

7.8 LD

175 m

2008 HU4

Apr 16

4.9 LD

10 m

2001 VG5

Apr 28

52.4 LD

1.8 km

2014 US115

May 1

9.4 LD

52 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. 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: 507.4 km/sec
density: 3.3 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1755 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: C1 
1538 UT Mar15 
24-hr: C1 1538 UT Mar15 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1700 UTDaily Sun: 15 Mar 16Not one of these relatively small sunspots poses a threat for strong flares. Solar activity remains very low. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 57 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 15 Mar 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 15 Mar 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 93 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 15 Mar 2016

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: 8.5 nT
Bz: 6.3 nT south 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1756 UTCoronal Holes: 15 Mar 16 
Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole should reach Earth on March 16-17. 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 Mar 14 2200 UTC


0-24 hr

24-48 hr


01 %

01 %


01 %

01 %

Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2016 Mar 14 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


35 %

35 %


25 %

30 %


10 %

15 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


05 %

05 %


25 %

20 %


65 %

70 %