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Space Weather Update: 03/20/2016

By, 03/20/2016

QUIET SUN: The sun is peppered with sunspots. However, they are all relatively small and none has the type of unstable magnetic field that is likely to explode. As a result, solar activity is very low and likely to remain so for days to come. NOAA forecasters say there is no more than a 5% chance of any strong solar flares this weekend. Aurora alerts: text or voice

SPRING IS AURORA SEASON: Northern Spring has arrived. To know this is true, one only has to look at the night sky over Alaska. Why? Because Spring is aurora season. Dirk Obudzinski sends this picture, taken March 19th, from Fox, Alaska:


"The auroras were brighter than the surrounding moonlit clouds," says Obudzinski. "It was a fantastic display despite most geomagnetic predictions signaling quiet conditions for last night. You just never know!"

Indeed, this is the time of year when you just never know. For reasons that are only partially understood, the weeks around equinoxes favor geomagnetic storms. Even a gentle gust of solar wind can spark a magnificent display. Stay tuned to the photo gallery for more Spring Green.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

GREEN AIRGLOW OVER THE ATACAMA DESERT: Not all green lights in the sky are auroras. Yuri Beletsky discovered this for himself on March 18, 2016, when he looked up from the Atacama desert of Chile:


The green light is called "airglow." Airglow is a luminous bubble that surounds our entire planet, fringing the top of the atmosphere with aurora-like color. Although airglow resembles the aurora borealis, its underlying physics is different. Airglow is caused by an assortment of chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere driven mainly by solar ultraviolet radiation; auroras, on the other hand, are ignited by gusts of solar wind.

"The sky was literally shining due to quite intense airglow and we were really lucky to witness it," says Beletsky. "It was so strong that one could hardly see Magellanic clouds through those colorful emissions. In my photo, the domes of the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes are on in the right."

Green airglow is best photographed from extremely dark sites on nights when the Moon is new or below the horizon. It often shows up in long exposures of the Milky Way. Browse the gallery for more examples:

Realtime Airglow Photo Gallery

COMET (and FRAGMENTS) APPROACH EARTH: On March 21st, green comet 252P/LINEAR will fly by Earth only 5.4 million km away-- the fifth closest cometary approach on record. One day later, a suspected fragment of the comet will pass even closer (3 million km). The name of the fragment is "P/2016 BA14," and Gregg Ruppel has photographed it zipping among the stars over Animas, New Mexico, on March 18th. Click to view a 40-minute time lapse video:


"I observed P/2016 BA14 using a 10-inch telescope and a STL11000 deep-sky CCD camera," says Ruppel.

By all accounts, the comet fragment is "pitifully faint." The parent comet, however, is relatively bright. Indeed, it is now on the threshold of naked eye visibility for observers in the southern hemisphere. Last night, Gerald Rhemann had little trouble photographing the 252P/LINEAR's green atmosphere from his backyard observatory in Namibia, Africa:


"I used a 12-inch telescope for this 360-second color exposure," says Rhemann.

The comet is green because its vaporizing nucleus emits diatomic carbon, C2, a gas which glows green in the near-vacuum of space. The verdant color will become even more intense in the nights ahead as 252P/LINEAR approaches Earth.

There is a chance that the comet's approach could cause a minor meteor shower. According to the International Meteor Organization, "[modeling by forecaster] Mikhail Maslov indicates that there might be a weak episode of faint, very slow meteors (15.5 km/s) on March 28–30 from a radiant near the star μ Leporis." Little is known about meteors from this comet, so estimates of the meteor rate are very uncertain. Maslov's models suggest no more than 5 to 10 per hour.

Realtime Comet Photo Gallery
[Resources: brightness measurements3D orbitorbital elements]

Solar Eclipse Photo Gallery

Realtime Spaceweather 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. 20, 2016, the network reported 1 fireballs.
(1 sporadic)



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 20, 2016 there were 1689 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 EW85

Mar 16

1.4 LD

13 m

2016 EF156

Mar 17

6.7 LD

47 m

2016 FA

Mar 17

11.5 LD

39 m

2016 ES155

Mar 17

5.7 LD

61 m

2016 FY2

Mar 17

12.4 LD

39 m

2016 EL157

Mar 18

4.5 LD

17 m

2010 FX9

Mar 19

6.9 LD

62 m

2016 EO156

Mar 19

3.5 LD

7 m

2016 EN156

Mar 19

1.6 LD

12 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

57 m

2016 EQ1

Mar 24

8.3 LD

24 m

2001 XD

Mar 28

64.5 LD

1.0 km

2016 EK156

Mar 29

14 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

7.7 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: 407.7 km/sec
density: 4.5 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1808 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B1
1207 UT Mar20
24-hr: C3 0133 UT Mar20
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1800 UTDaily Sun: 20 Mar 16Not one of these sunspots has the type of unstable magnetic field that poses a threat for strong flares. Solar activity remains low. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 26
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 20 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 20 Mar 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 89 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 20 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= 3
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 6.7 nT
Bz: 5.8 nT south

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1808 UTCoronal Holes: 20 Mar 16
Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole should reach Earth on March 22-23. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds began on Dec. 13, 2015. It is expected to end in late February or March 2016.


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

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 Mar 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 Mar 19 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


10 %

10 %


01 %

01 %


01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


20 %

15 %


20 %

20 %


10 %

10 %