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Space Weather Update: 05/17/2016

By, 05/17/2016

CHANCE OF MINOR STORMS: NOAA forecasters estimate a 50% chance of minor G1-class geomagnetic storms on May 19-20 when Earth enters a stream of solar wind flowing from a coronal hole on the sun. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras, especially in the southern hemisphere where darkening autumn skies favor visibility. Aurora alerts: textvoice.

SMOKEY THE SUNSPOT: More than a dozen forest fires are burning near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Billowing smoke is turning the atmosphere in that part of Canada into a natural filter for solar observing. Gerry Emas sends this picture from Edmonton:


"We had a great sunset due to smoke from forest fires in Northern Alberta," says Emas. "Sunspot AR2546 was clearly visible."

Sunspot AR2546 is twice as wide as Earth itself. These dimensions make it an easy target for backyard solar telescopes--and even ordinary digital cameras looking through a sufficient column of smoke. Monitor the gallery for more sightings.

Warning: Even when the sun is dimmed by low-hanging clouds or smoke, it can still hurt your eyes. If you chose to photograph the low sun, as Emas did, use the camera's LCD screen for safe viewfinding. Never look into the eyepiece of an unfiltered camera or telescope when the sun is in the field of view.

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

YOU ARE APPROACHING MARS: On any night this week, when the clock strikes midnight, step outside and look south. There's a brilliant red light in the constellation Scorpius guaranteed to catch your attention. It's Mars, approaching Earth for a close encounter at the end of the month. On May 10th, Shahrin Ahmad of Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, took this astro-photo of the star field around the Red Planet:


Saturn and the red giant star Antares are there, too, forming a beautiful triangle with Mars as the third vertex. All three are brightly visible to the naked eye.

The view is even better through a telescope. The rings of Saturn are easy to see through backyard optics.  Ditto for the ruddy disk of Mars.  The Red Planet is just finishing winter in its southern hemisphere, so be alert for a bright polar cap at the martian south pole.

Upcoming dates of interest include May 22nd when Mars is at opposition. In other words, it is opposite the sun in the sky; Mars rises at sunset and soars high in the sky at midnight. Also on May 22nd, the full Moon passes by Mars, guiding novices right to the Red Planet: sky map. On May 30th, Mars makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003. Mar your calendar and enjoy the show!

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

SPACE WEATHER BALLOON RESULTS: On May 8th, and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus simultaneously launched a pair of space weather balloons separated by 500 miles--one near Bend, Oregon, and the other near Bishop, California: map. Both balloons carried a payload of cosmic ray sensors to altitudes near 120,000 ft. Which state had more radiation in its atmosphere? The answer is Oregon:


The graph shows how radiation levels changed as the balloons ascended. From ground level to 40,000 feet, the two curves are almost indistinguishable. In terms of radiation, California and Oregon are much the same at altitudes where planes fly. Above 40,000 feet, however, the curves diverge. Peak radiation levels detected in the stratosphere over Oregon were more than 25% higher than California.

Some of this difference is to be expected. Oregon is closer to Earth's magnetic north pole where radiation levels are naturally higher. The natural difference between Oregon and California might have been amplified by space weather. At the time of the balloon launch, the strongest geomagnetic storm of 2016 (a G3-class event now known as the "Mother's Day Storm") was underway.

Could the Mother's Day Storm have been a factor? We will have to launch another pair of balloons to find out. A repeat of the experiment during quiet conditions should reveal the role of geomagnetic activity.

Balloon flights produce more than just good data. There's also spectacular photography. This shot shows the Cascade mountains of Oregon from 120,700 ft:


Sponsors of our research can have their pictures taken in front of this landscape. If you would like to sponsor our next Oregon-California balloon flight, currently scheduled for June, please contact Dr. Tony Phillips to get involved.


Realtime Aurora 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 May. 17, 2016, the network reported 9 fireballs.
(9 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 May 17, 2016 there were 1703 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 JW28

May 14

5.6 LD

36 m

2016 JD18

May 16

1.6 LD

51 m

2016 JH18

May 17

13.5 LD

26 m

2016 GS2

May 18

3.4 LD

108 m

2016 HF3

May 18

8.5 LD

52 m

2009 DL46

May 24

6.2 LD

215 m

2016 JB29

Jun 4

12.1 LD

54 m

1997 XF11

Jun 10

70 LD

1.8 km

2015 XZ378

Jun 13

9.7 LD

16 m

2009 CV

Jun 20

12.4 LD

60 m

2010 NY65

Jun 24

10.7 LD

215 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: 551.0 km/sec
density: 3.9 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1720 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B3
1559 UT May17
24-hr: C1 0408 UT May17
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1700 UTDaily Sun: 17 May 16Sunspot AR2546 is big, but quiet. Solar activity remains low.Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 76
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 17 May 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 17 May 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 102 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 17 May 2016

Current Auroral Oval:


Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 3 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 4
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 5.4 nT
Bz: 5.0 nT north

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1718 UTCoronal Holes: 17 May 16Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole could reach Earth on May 19-20. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds has ended and we are now waiting for the first northern NLCs to appear--probably in mid-to late-May.


Switch view: Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 05-11-2016 00:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 May 16 2200 UTC


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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 May 16 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

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24-48 hr


30 %

25 %


15 %

05 %


05 %

01 %

High latitudes

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24-48 hr


10 %

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30 %

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30 %