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Space Weather Update: 05/20/2016

By, 05/20/2016

CO-ROTATING INTERACTION REGION: NOAA forecasters estimate a 60% chance of G1-class geomagnetic storms on May 20th when a co-rotating interaction region (CIR) is expected to hit Earth. CIRs are transition zones between slow- and fast-moving streams of solar wind. Strong magnetic fields and density gradients inside CIRs often do a good job sparking auroras. Aurora alerts: text,voice.

BIG SUNSPOT STARES AT EARTH: Today, sunspot AR2546 is directly facing Earth. J.P. Brahic photographed the behemoth active region from his backyard observatory on Uzès, France:


In Brahic's high-resolution photo, an image of Earth is inserted for scale. The sunspot's primary dark core is almost three times wider than our planet and, according to one reader, resembles the Eye of Sauron.

Despite its menacing appearance, AR2546 is harmless. The sunspot has a stable magnetic field that poses little threat for explosions. NOAA forecasters say there is no more than a 1% chance of strong flares today.

The dimensions of AR2546 make it an easy target for backyard solar telescopes. Monitoring is encouraged. Solar flare alerts: textvoice.

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

SNOOPY AT THE EDGE OF SPACE: On May 15th, and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched Snoopy to the edge of space--and set a high-altitude record for political campaigning. The high-altitude balloon flight was sponsored by Inyo County Supervisor Jeff Griffiths, who is running for re-election. Snoopy carried his campaign pin 115,700 feet:


Griffith's generous donation to the students not only paid for his Edge of Space campaign ad, but also allowed us to continue our atmospheric radiation monitoring program. Valuable data were collected by cosmic ray sensors inside the payload, confirming our previous finding that cosmic rays are intensifying. Thanks, Jeff!

Readers, if you would like to send a small item or photo to space--and sponsor student research at the same time--the cost is $500. Contact Dr. Tony Phillips to book your flight.

HOW TO SEE NASA'S GIANT SPACE BALLOON: On May 17th, NASA successfully launched a gigantic helium balloon from Wanaka, New Zealand, on a 100+ day mission to the stratosphere. The 19 million cubic foot behemoth is now floating over southern Australia where it is visible to the naked eye. "Last night, there were many calls across New South Wales about a strange glowing orb," reports Ray Pickard from the Bathurst Observatory Research Facility in Bathurst, Australia. "This image taken through my telescope shows it to be NASA's balloon launched from New Zealand."


This is a test flight of NASA's super pressure balloon, which is capable of remaining at a near-constant altitude in the stratosphere for months. The previous record for such a balloon is 54 days. Engineers hope to shatter that mark by a factor of 2.

The balloon's payload includes an infrasound experiment developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina. Previous balloon flights of their instrument have recorded low-frequency sounds in the stratosphere, some of which are believed to be new to science. Also onboard is NASA's Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gamma-ray telescope; among other things, it will study the origin of positrons in the Milky Way.

Currently, the balloon is 110,000 feet above Australia. Soon it will enter a winter stratospheric cyclone that will carry it eastward, circumnavigating the globe at southern mid-latitudes once every one to three weeks. People near the flight path over Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and South America may be able to see the balloon as it passes by. The best time to look is around sunrise or sunset when the rays of the low-hanging sun paint the balloon golden-red against the dark twilight sky.

Where is the balloon now? Click here for real-time tracking.

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. 20, 2016, the network reported 5 fireballs.
(5 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 20, 2016 there were 1703 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


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

49 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

2002 KL6

Jul 22

26.6 LD

1.4 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: 425.0 km/sec
density: 5.2 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1739 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B4
1223 UT May20
24-hr: B4 1223 UT May20
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1700 UTDaily Sun: 20 May 16Sunspot AR2546 is big but quiet. Solar activity remains low.Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 38
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 20 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 20 May 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 99 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 20 May 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: 7.5 nT
Bz: 2.7 nT north

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1739 UTCoronal Holes: 20 May 16Earth is entering a stream of solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole. 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: 05-19-2016 23:42:40

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 May 19 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 May 19 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


35 %

35 %


25 %

15 %


05 %

05 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


10 %

10 %


20 %

25 %


60 %

50 %