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Space Weather Update: 12/18/2015

By, 12/18/2015

INCOMING SOLAR STORM CLOUDS: A pair of CMEs (movie) billowed away from the sun on Dec 16th. NOAA forecasters say that both are likely to hit Earth onDec. 18th and 19th. These are relatively minor storm clouds. Nevertheless, the double blow could spark G1-class geomagnetic storms over the weekend. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras. Aurora alerts: text or voice

POLAR STRATOSPHERIC CLOUDS: This week, sky watchers are reporting an outbreak of polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) around the Arctic Circle. Unlike normal grey-white clouds, which hug Earth's surface at altitudes of only 5 to 10 km, PSCs float through the stratosphere (25 km) and they are fantastically colorful. Truls Tiller photographed these over Tromsø, Norway, on Dec. 16th:


"Here the sun is gone for now," says Tiller, "but this beautiful view makes the winter darkness nice to be in as well. The picture was taken at 10.30 am, in the middle of the 'day.'"

Also known as "nacreous" or "mother of pearl" clouds, the icy structures form in the lower stratosphere when temperatures drop to around minus 85ºC. High-altitude sunlight shining through tiny ice particles ~10µm across produce the characteristic bright iridescent colors by diffraction and interference. Once thought to be mere curiosities, some PSCs are now known to be associated with the destruction of ozone.

"Nacreous clouds far outshine and have much more vivid colours than ordinary iridescent clouds, which are very much poor relations and seen frequently all over the world," writes atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley. "Once seen they are never forgotten."

Realtime Nacreous Clouds Photo Gallery

ELECTRIC-BLUE CLOUDS APPEAR OVER ANTARCTICA: NASA's AIMspacecraft has detected electric-blue clouds forming over Antarctica. These arenoctilucent clouds (NLCs), and their apparition marks the beginning of the 2015-2016 season for NLCs in the southern hemisphere. According to Cora Randall, a member of the AIM science team at the University of Colorado, the first wisps of electric-blue appeared on Dec. 14th:


NLCs are Earth's highest clouds. Seeded by meteor smoke, they form at the edge of space 83 km above Earth's surface. When sunlight hits the tiny ice crystals that make up these clouds, they glow electric blue. NLCs appear during late spring and summer because, ironically, that is when the upper atmosphere is coldest, allowing the ice crystals of NLCs to form. (Northerners reading this story should remember that it is late spring in Antarctica.)

Previous results from AIM have shown that NLCs are like a great "geophysical light bulb." They turn on every year in late spring, reaching almost full intensity over a period of about 10 days. At the moment, only a few puffs and wisps of NLCs are visible over Antarctica. By Christmas, the whole continent could be blanketed in electric blue as the bulb begins to glow in earnest.

It is interesting that noctilucent clouds over the Antarctic have appeared at about the same time as nacreous clouds (PSCs) over the Arctic. Pure coincidence? Maybe not. Although they are poles apart, the two types of clouds may be linked.

"We do know that the meteorology of the northern winter stratosphere can impact the southern NLC region.  A widely-cited mechanism for this teleconnection predicts that a cooling in the Arctic stratosphere – which is consistent with the appearance of PSCs – would lead to a cooling in the Antarctic NLC region, and thus a higher probability of NLC formation."

In other words, nacreous clouds and NLCs should appear at the same time. Just one problem: "The literature to date suggests that the teleconnection is active only in January and February," says Randall. "This year, we could be seeing something new."

Realtime Spaceweather Photo Gallery

METEOR BALLOON IN THE STRATOSPHERE: When the Geminid meteor shower peaked on Dec. 14th, a snowstorm was in progress over the mountains of central California. No stars? No problem. Using a helium balloon, the students ofEarth to Sky Calculus launched a low-light camera to photograph the shower high above the obscuring clouds. Their experimental payload ascended to 91,000 feet where the night sky looked like this:


The big white object at the top of the frame is the balloon, surrounded by some of the bright stars and planets of the pre-dawn sky. From the lower stratosphere, the freezing camera was able to see stars as dim as 2nd magnitude. This wasn't as sensitive as the students had hoped, but it was good enough to record several Geminid fireballs. Here are a couple of movies showing Geminids emerging from behind the balloon: fireball #1fireball #2. In the movies, stars and planets move in a lazy circle around the balloon--a result of the payload's gentle spin--while Geminids streak in straight lines. The camera also recorded the balloon exploding at the apex of the flight, and the payload parachuting back to Earth.

The students plan to observe more meteor showers in the future with even better results. They believe they can boost the sensitivity of the camera by, e.g., warming the payload bay during the flight and improving the camera's focus, pre-launch. If their improvements succeed, they could establish ballooning as a practical and fun way to monitor meteor showers in all kinds of weather.

HEY THANKS! Earth to Sky Calculus wishes to thank KOMO, an ABC News channel in Seattle, for sponsoring this flight. Their generous donation of $500 allowed the students to take the first-ever picture of Geminids from the stratosphere. Readers, if you would like to sponsor a balloon flight, click here.

Realtime Meteor Photo Gallery

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 Dec. 18, 2015, the network reported 33 fireballs.
(25 sporadics, 3 sigma Hydrids, 2 December Leonis Minorids, 1 December Monocerotid, 1 Geminid, 1 Comae Berenicid)



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 December 18, 2015 there were 1646 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2015 XR169

Dec 13

1.3 LD

8 m

2015 XX128

Dec 14

2.4 LD

25 m

2015 XX169

Dec 14

8.4 LD

15 m

2015 YA

Dec 15

1.5 LD

15 m

2015 XN55

Dec 15

2.5 LD

16 m

2015 XY261

Dec 15

0.8 LD

14 m

2015 XL261

Dec 17

9.7 LD

36 m

2015 XE1

Dec 19

13.2 LD

33 m

2015 YB

Dec 19

0.2 LD

13 m

2015 XA378

Dec 19

10 LD

31 m

2015 XN261

Dec 23

2.6 LD

27 m

2015 XX378

Dec 24

6.9 LD

47 m

2011 YD29

Dec 24

9.7 LD

24 m

2003 SD220

Dec 24

28.4 LD

1.8 km

2008 CM

Dec 29

22.8 LD

1.5 km

2015 XV351

Dec 29

5.3 LD

28 m

2015 XC352

Dec 30

5.2 LD

30 m

2004 MQ1

Jan 2

55.4 LD

1.1 km

1999 JV6

Jan 6

12.6 LD

410 m

1685 Toro

Jan 22

60.9 LD

1.7 km

2001 XR1

Jan 23

74.4 LD

1.5 km

2015 VC2

Jan 28

5.8 LD

15 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. Here is the data from our latest flight, Oct. 22nd:

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: 417.6 km/sec
density: 4.2 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1618 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B6 
1534 UT Dec18 
24-hr: C4 0509 UT Dec18 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1600 UTDaily Sun: 18 Dec 15Big sunspot AR2470 poses a slight threat for M-class solar flares. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 52 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 18 Dec 2015

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 0 days
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 18 Dec 2015

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 118 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 18 Dec 2015

Current Auroral Oval:

Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 1 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 4 
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 5.4 nT
Bz: 1.6 nT north 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1619 UTCoronal Holes: 18 Dec 15 
There are no large coronal holes on the Earthside of the sun. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds is about to begin. Monitor the daily daisies, below, from NASA's AIM spacecraft for the first wisps of electric blue above Antarctica.

Switch view: Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 12-17-2015 15:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2015 Dec 17 2200 UTC


0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

15 %


01 %

01 %

Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2015 Dec 17 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


35 %

35 %


20 %

35 %


05 %

15 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

05 %


25 %

20 %


50 %

70 %