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Space Weather Update: 05/21/2016

By, 05/21/2016

MAGNETIC STORM IGNORES FORECAST: Ignoring's forecast of a quiet weekend, a G1-class geomagnetic storm erupted during the early hours of May 21st.  The brief disturbance occurred around 09:00 UT when Earth passed through a region of interplanetary space filled with negative polarity magnetic fields.  Such fields open a crack in Earth's magnetosphere, allowing solar wind to pour in and fuel storms. Aurora alerts: textvoice.

MIDNIGHT SKY SHOW: Tonight, around midnight, step outside and look south. The full Moon is passing by Mars and Saturn, forming a luminous triangle in the constellation Scorpius. You won't need a sky map to find them, but just in case:


The Moon and planets are easy to see with the naked eye. Pay special attention to the intense rusty-red color of Mars and subtle golden hue of Saturn. The contrast is beautiful.

If you have a telescope, take a closer look. 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.

This meeting in Scorpius occurs just 8 days before Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in a decade. Note the location of Mars tonight so you'll know where to look again on May 30th--the Night of the Red Planet!

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.

RADIO STORM ON JUPITER: Earlier this week, there was a storm on Jupiter--aradio storm. Amateur radio astronomer Thomas Ashcraft recorded the event on May 17th using a shortwave radio telescope located in New Mexico. Click on the image to hear the whooshing sounds that emerged from his telescope's loudspeaker:


"This was a strong storm," says Ashcraft. "The audio recording captures the sounds I heard during one minute around 01:04 UT."

Jupiter's radio storms are caused by natural radio lasers in the planet's magnetosphere that sweep past Earth as Jupiter rotates. Electrical currents flowing between Jupiter's upper atmosphere and the volcanic moon Io can boost these emissions to power levels easily detected by ham radio antennas on Earth. Jovian "S-bursts" (short bursts) and "L-bursts" (long bursts) mimic the sounds of woodpeckers, whales, and waves crashing on the beach. Here are a few audio samples: S-burstsS-bursts (slowed down 128:1), L-Bursts

Now is a good time to listen to Jupiter's radio storms. The giant planet is only two months past opposition (closest approach to Earth), and it is high in the sky at sunset. NASA's Radio Jove Project explains how to build your own receiver.

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. 21, 2016, the network reported 8 fireballs.
(7 sporadics, 1 eta Aquariid)



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 21, 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

2011 BX18

Jul 25

52.7 LD

1.1 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: 501.8 km/sec
density: 3.5 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1819 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: C1
1400 UT May21
24-hr: C1 1400 UT May21
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1800 UTDaily Sun: 21 May 16Sunspot AR2546 is big but quiet. Solar activity remains low.Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 43
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 21 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 21 May 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 100 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 21 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= 5
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 8.7 nT
Bz: 4.3 nT north

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1820 UTCoronal Holes: 21 May 16Earth is inside a weak stream of solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds Images from NASA's AIM spacecraft are once again appearing on However, we are experiencing some minor technical difficulties as the new season begins, and the polar daisies are not yet being sized correctly. We're working on this problem now.


Switch view: Europe, USA, Asia, PolarUpdated at: 05-21-2016 15:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 May 20 2200 UTC


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Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2016 May 20 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

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