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Space Weather Update: 12/20/2015

By, 12/20/2015

GEOMAGNETIC STORM: A G2-class geomagnetic storm is in progress on Dec. 20th as Earth moves through the wake of a CME that struck our planet's magnetic field yesterday. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras. Aurora alerts: text or voice

COLORFUL LIGHTS OVER CHILE: Geomagnetic storms are brewing, but not every colorful light in the night sky is an aurora. For instance, Yuri Beletsky sends this picture taken Dec. 17th from the Atacama desert in Chile:


"These are not auroras. We just witnessed an amazing display of airglow," says Beletsky. "It was so intense that you could not see many stars close to the horizon - the sky was literally shining."

Airglow is aurora-like phenomenon in the upper atmosphere caused by a variety ofchemical reactions. It begins during the day when solar ultraviolet radiation ionizes atoms and molecules. At night, those same atoms and molecules glow as they re-capture lost electrons. The green in Beletsky's photo comes from oxygen atoms in a layer 90-100 km high; the red is probably associated with OH ions at an altitude of about 85 km. The wavy structure of the glow is due to high-altitude gravity waves, which alter the temperature and density structure of the upper atmosphere.

"Airglow is much less intense than aurora," continues Beletsky. "The display I saw looked, to the naked eye, like a series of black-and-white waving bands. The full color of the display was easily captured, however, by my digital camera."

Realtime Spaceweather Photo Gallery

UNIQUE CHRISTMAS GIFT: Is there a young scientist in your life? For Christmas, you can give them the gift of exploration--specifically, a trip to the edge of space:


To raise funds for its student research program, Earth to Sky Calculus is selling a limited number of Holiday Season balloon flights carrying ... whatever you desire. Small experiments. Holiday or anniversary photos. Business advertisements. The sky is the limit. Young people receiving this gift can design their own experiment and attend the launch via Skype. The gift includes a brainstorming session via Skype with Dr. Tony Phillips and the students of Earth to Sky. Cost: $500. Buy now and receive the certificate in time for Christmas. Contact Dr. Tony Phillips to book your flight.

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. 19, 2015, the network reported 33 fireballs.
(23 sporadics, 4 December Leonis Minorids, 2 Geminids, 2 sigma Hydrids, 1 Quadrantid, 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 20, 2015 there were potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2015 YA

Dec 15

1.5 LD

15 m

2015 XN55

Dec 15

2.5 LD

17 m

2015 XY261

Dec 15

0.8 LD

14 m

2015 XL261

Dec 17

9.7 LD

35 m

2015 XE1

Dec 19

13.2 LD

33 m

2015 XA378

Dec 19

10 LD

31 m

2015 YE1

Dec 22

5.5 LD

14 m

2015 YC1

Dec 22

3.9 LD

26 m

2015 YK

Dec 22

8.9 LD

28 m

2015 XN261

Dec 23

2.6 LD

26 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

31 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

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: 417.0 km/sec
density: 16.4 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1430 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: C2 
1250 UT Dec20 
24-hr: C3 0513 UT Dec20 
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1400 UTDaily Sun: 20 Dec 15Big sunspot AR2470 poses a slight threat for M-class solar flares. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 44 
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 20 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 20 Dec 2015

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 119 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 20 Dec 2015

Current Auroral Oval:

Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 5 storm
24-hr max: Kp= 6 
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 15.1 nT
Bz: 15 nT south 

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1430 UTCoronal Holes: 20 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: 12-19-2015 15:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2015 Dec 19 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 19 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


40 %

10 %


20 %

01 %


01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


05 %

20 %


25 %

25 %


50 %

15 %