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Space Weather Update: 03/20/2017

By, 03/20/2017

SUNSPOT COUNTS REACH 7-YEAR LOW: The sun has now been blank (no sunspots) for 14 consecutive days. To find a similar stretch of blank suns in the historical record, you have to go back to April of 2010--a time when the sun was emerging from a deep Solar Minimum. The current stretch of spotlessness heralds a new Solar Minimum expected to arrive in 2019-2020. Between now and then we can expect even longer interregnums broken from time to time by mostly small sunspots incapable of strong flares. Is space weather coming to an end? On the contrary, now is when things get interesting: Solar Minimum brings extra cosmic rayspink auroras, and more.

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, CRESCENT VENUS: Like the Moon, Venus has phases, and right now it is a beautifully slender crescent.  On March 17th, Italian astronomer Raffaello Lena used a small telescope to track Venus down to the horizon as it set in the evening sky of Rome. He recorded a beautiful example of atmospheric turbulence distorting the curved lines of the second planet:


This kind of scintillation is normally reserved for pinpoint objects like distant stars.  Venus is so thin, it's doing it too.  In a related development, some observers have recorded the chromatic splitting of Venus into red, green, and blue crescents, making Venus look like a tiny rainbow in space.

All of this is happening because Venus is passing between Earth and the sun--an event astronomers call "inferior solar conjunction."  As Venus turns its night side to Earth, only a luminous sliver remains.  Observers can find Venus shining through the twilight in the western sky at sunset. The crescent is easy to see in small telescopes and binoculars.

The Venus-sun distance will be least on March 25th. This is the most beautiful time to observe Venus, but also the most perilous. The glare of the nearby sun magnified by a telescope can damage the eyes of anyone looking through the eyepiece.

Anthony J. Cook of the Griffith Observatory has some advice for observers: "I have observed Venus at conjunction, but only from within the shadow of a building, or by adding a mask to the front end of the telescope to fully shadow the optics from direct sunlight. This is tricky with a refractor or a catadioptric, because the optics start at the front end of the tube. Here at Griffith Observatory, I rotate the telescope dome to make sure the lens of the telescope is shaded from direct sunlight, even through it means that the lens will be partially blocked when aimed at Venus. With our Newtonian telescope, I add a curved cardboard mask at the front end of the tube to shadow the primary mirror."

Realtime Venus Photo Gallery

NEUTRONS ON A PLANE: Among researchers, it is well known that air travelers are exposed to cosmic rays. High-energy particles and photons from deep space penetrate Earth's atmosphere and go right through the hulls of commercial aircraft. This has prompted the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) to classify pilots and flight attendants as occupational radiation workers. 

Many studies of this problem focus on ionizing radiation such as x-rays and gamma-rays. On March 16th we turned the tables and measured neutrons instead. During a 12-hour flight from Stockholm to Los Angeles, and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus used bubble chambers to monitor neutron activity inside a Scandinavian Airlines jetliner.


In the photo above, taken 35,000 feet above Greenland, each bubble shows where a neutron passed through the chamber and vaporized a superheated droplet. By the time the long flight was over, we measured almost 20 uSv (microsieverts) of radiation from neutrons--similar to the dose from a panoramic X-ray at your dentist's office. This confirms that neutrons are an important form of aviation radiation relevant to both air travelers and future space tourists.

Where do these neutrons come from? Mainly, they are secondary cosmic rays. When primary cosmic rays from deep space hit Earth's atmosphere, they produce a spray of secondary particles including neutrons, protons, alpha particles, and other species. Cosmic ray neutrons can reach the ground; indeed, researchers routinely use neutron counters on Earth's surface to monitor cosmic ray activity above the atmosphere. Now we're doing the same thing onboard airplanes.

Earlier in the week, we flew these bubble chambers to the Arctic stratosphere using a space weather balloon. Interestingly, the 12-hour plane flight yielded ~6 times more neutrons than the shorter (2 hour) but far higher (97,000 ft) balloon flight to the stratosphere. What does it mean? We're still analyzing the data and will have more insights to share in the days ahead. Stay tuned!

Realtime Space Weather 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 Mar. 17, 2017, the network reported 18 fireballs.
(18 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 March 20, 2017 there were 1779 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:



Miss Distance


2017 EM

Mar 12

13.9 LD

29 m

2017 EK

Mar 13

5 LD

62 m

2017 EU2

Mar 14

12.4 LD

35 m

2017 EK3

Mar 14

10.3 LD

23 m

2017 FW

Mar 14

4.4 LD

23 m

2017 EE4

Mar 16

7 LD

45 m

1998 SL36

Mar 16

8.3 LD

390 m

2017 EG3

Mar 17

4.4 LD

23 m

2017 FS

Mar 19

0.3 LD

7 m

2017 FK

Mar 20

1.7 LD

15 m

2017 FJ

Mar 21

2 LD

10 m

2017 FO

Mar 21

12.2 LD

23 m

2015 TC25

Mar 26

7.6 LD

6 m

2017 FV

Apr 2

9.1 LD

58 m

2017 EB3

Apr 4

13.8 LD

41 m

2017 DC38

Apr 5

14.6 LD

57 m

2003 BD44

Apr 18

21.7 LD

1.9 km

2014 JO25

Apr 19

4.6 LD

1.0 km

1999 CU3

Apr 19

63.7 LD

1.9 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


Readers, thank you for your patience while we continue to develop this new section of We've been working to streamline our data reduction, allowing us to post results from balloon flights much more rapidly, and we have developed a new data product, shown here:


This plot displays radiation measurements not only in the stratosphere, but also at aviation altitudes. Dose rates are expessed as multiples of sea level. For instance, we see that boarding a plane that flies at 25,000 feet exposes passengers to dose rates ~10x higher than sea level. At 40,000 feet, the multiplier is closer to 50x. These measurements are made by our usual cosmic ray payload as it passes through aviation altitudes en route to the stratosphere over California.

What is this all about? 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. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1#2#3#4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the general population. Our latest measurements show that cosmic rays are intensifying, with an increase of more than 12% since 2015:


Why are cosmic rays intensifying? The main reason is the sun. Solar storm clouds such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) sweep aside cosmic rays when they pass by Earth. During Solar Maximum, CMEs are abundant and cosmic rays are held at bay. Now, however, the solar cycle is swinging toward Solar Minimum, allowing cosmic rays to return. Another reason could be the weakening of Earth's magnetic field, which helps protect us from deep-space radiation.

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.

The data points in the graph above correspond to the peak of the Reneger-Pfotzer maximum, which lies about 67,000 feet above central California. When cosmic rays crash into Earth's atmosphere, they produce a spray of secondary particles that is most intense at the entrance to the stratosphere. Physicists Eric Reneger and Georg Pfotzer discovered the maximum using balloons in the 1930s and it is what we are measuring today.


Current Conditions

Solar wind
speed: 315.4 km/sec
density: 9.7 protons/cm3
more data: ACEDSCOVR
Updated: Today at 1339 UT

X-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: A6 0600 UT Mar20
24-hr: A6 0600 UT Mar20
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1300 UT


Daily Sun: 20 Mar 17

The sun is blank--no sunspots. Credit: SDO/HMI


Sunspot number: 0
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 20 Mar 2017

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 14 days
2017 total: 26 days (34%)
2016 total: 32 days (9%) 
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 Mar 2017

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 71 sfu
explanation | more data
Updated 20 Mar 2017


Current Auroral Oval:


Switch to: EuropeUSANew ZealandAntarctica
Credit: NOAA/Ovation


Planetary K-index
Now: Kp= 1 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 1 quiet
explanation | more data

Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 4.7 nT
Bz: 3.7 nT north
more data: ACEDSCOVR
Updated: Today at 1338 UT


Coronal Holes: 19 Mar 17

Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole should reach Earth as early as March 22nd. Credit: NASA/SDO.


Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds began on Nov. 17, 2016. Come back to this spot every day to see the "daily daisy" from NASA's AIM spacecraft, which is monitoring the dance of electric-blue around the Antarctic Circle.


Switch view: Ross Ice ShelfAntarctic PeninsulaEast AntarcticaPolar

Updated at: 02-24-2017 17:55:02


NOAA Forecasts


Updated at: 2017 Mar 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 storm

Updated at: 2017 Mar 19 2200 UTC


0-24 hr

24-48 hr


10 %

15 %


01 %

05 %


01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

15 %


15 %

20 %


10 %

20 %