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Space Weather Update: 05/25/2016

By, 05/25/2016

SPACE WEATHER & THE ORIGIN OF LIFE: A new study published this week inNature Geoscience suggests that extreme space weather could have played a key role in the origin of life. According to Vladimir Airapetian of the Goddard Space Flight Center, intense solar flares ~4 billion years ago altered the chemistry of Earth's upper atmosphere, creating greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm as well as organic molecules important to early life forms. A readable summary of the research has been written by Maddie Stone of Gizmodo.

WAITING FOR NOCTILUCENT CLOUDS: Every year in late May, noctilucent clouds (NLCs) gather over Earth's north pole where they remain, rippling hypnotically, until the end of Arctic summer. NLCs are, by far, Earth's highest clouds. Seeded by meteoroids, they float in a thin layer ~83 km above the planet's surface. With the beginning of the season upon us, NASA's AIM spacecraft is monitoring the Arctic for signs of electric blue:


This is called a "daily daisy." It assembles scans from AIM's Cloud Imaging and Particle Size (CIPS) instrument into an ensemble picture of the Arctic. Noctilucent clouds would appear as wispy filaments criss-crossing the Arctic Circle. You can see the daily daisy updated every 24 hours right here on

So far AIM's daily daisy is empty--no NLCs. There has been one ground-based sighting that suggests the season might already be underway. We will know for sure when AIM spots the first Arctic NLCs of 2016 from space.

Realtime Noctilucent Cloud Photo Gallery

POLAR MESOSPHERIC SUMMERTIME ECHOS: Noctilucent clouds aren't the only sign of Arctic summer. So are polar mesospheric summertime echos (PMSEs). Arctic researchers who monitor VHF radio receivers sometimes pick up late night signals from distant transmitters. These strange "echos" occur during the months from May through August, the same as noctilucent cloud season. On May 14th, Rob Stammes of Laukvik, Lofoten, Norway, may have recorded the first PMSEs of 2016:


"I use my VHF receiving system generally for signals from auroras and meteors," says Stammes. "This couldn't have been auroras, because aurora activity was low. Plus, there is a big difference between the sound from aurora echoes and the sound of other reflection mechanisms. This event was much more like a PMSE, which I have detected many times in previous seasons."

PMSEs are radio waves reflected from an altitude of 80 km to 90 km. That part of Earth's upper atmosphere is called the "mesosphere." It is, coincidentally, the same place noctilucent clouds are found. The exact cause of PMSEs is not yet known; theorists have proposed explanations ranging from steep electron density gradients and "dressed aerosols" to gravity waves and turbulence. The echoes are often accompanied by visible NLCs, but not always.

Arctic summer is coming. Stay tuned for more PMSEs.

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.

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. 25, 2016, the network reported 13 fireballs.
(13 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 25, 2016 there were 1701 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 HF3

May 18

8.5 LD

48 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: 366.1 km/sec
density: 3.3 protons/cm3

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1841 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B3
1446 UT May25
24-hr: B3 0203 UT May25
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1800 UTDaily Sun: 25 May 16Sunspot AR2546 is big but quiet. Solar activity remains very low. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 24
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 25 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 25 May 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 94 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 25 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= 2
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 4.6 nT
Bz: 1.9 nT north

explanation | more data
Updated: Today at 1841 UTCoronal Holes: 25 May 16Solar wind flowing from the indicated coronal hole could reach Earth on May 26-27. Credit: SDO/AIA.Noctilucent Clouds Images from NASA's AIM spacecraft are once again appearing on Check back daily for space-based sightings of noctilucent clouds.


Switch view: Europe, USA, Asia, PolarUpdated at: 05-23-2016 15:55:03

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 May 24 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 24 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


15 %

30 %


05 %

10 %


01 %

01 %

High latitudes

0-24 hr

24-48 hr


20 %

15 %


25 %

30 %


20 %

40 %