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Space Weather Update: 12/11/2016

By, 12/11/2016

SOLAR WIND CAUSING MAGNETIC UNREST: This weekend, solar wind is blowing around Earth faster than 600 km/s -- more than twice as fast as usual. This is causing magnetic unrest and intermittant auroras around the Arctic Circle. Browse the aurora gallery for the latest sightings.

GEMINID METEOR SHOWER: Earth is entering a stream of gravelly debris from "rock comet" 3200 Phaethon, source of the annual Geminid meteor shower. This is causing a drizzle of meteors ahead of the shower's peak on Dec. 13-14. Just last night, Brian Emfinger watched a Geminid fireball burn up above Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock, Arkansas:


"Despite bright moonlight and the city lights of nearby Little Rock, this fireball was easy to see," says Emfinger.

At the moment, Geminid rates are scarcely more than a few per hour. Sightings will increase in the nights ahead as Earth plunges deeper into the rock comet's debris zone. By the time peak night arrives, rates could be as high as 20 or 30 per hour--less than usual because of glare from the full Moon, but still a nice display. For observers in both hemispheres, the best time to look is during the hours between local midnight and sunrise on Wednesday, Dec. 14th. [sky map]

Realtime Meteor Photo Gallery

POLAR STRATOSPHERIC CLOUDS: The stratosphere above the Arctic Circle is getting cold ... very cold.  That's the only way to explain these colorful clouds that materialized over Kiruna, Sweden, on Dec. 9th:


"Polar stratospheric clouds are back in the subarctic," reports photographer Mia Stålnacke. "They were brilliantly beautiful today."

Icy polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) form in the lower stratosphere when temperatures drop to around -85ºC. That's how cold it has to be for ice crystals to form in the very dry stratosphere. High-altitude sunlight shining through tiny ice particles ~10µm across produce the characteristic bright iridescent colors.

"Once seen they are never forgotten," says atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley. "Polar stratospheric clouds have much more vivid colors than ordinary iridescent clouds, which are very much poor relations and seen frequently all over the world."

Once thought to be mere curiosities, some PSCs are now known to be associated with the destruction of ozone. Indeed, an ozone hole formed over the UK in Feb. 2016 following an outbreak of ozone-destroying Type 1 PSCs.

"Last winter we had these clouds almost daily for long periods of time," says Stålnacke. Arctic sky watchers are encouraged to be alert for more in the days ahead. The best time to look is just before sunrise or after sunset.

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

STUDENT CHRISTMAS SPECIAL: Is there a young scientist in your life? For Christmas, you can give them the gift of exploration. For the holiday season only, we're reducing the cost of payload space on Earth to Sky Calculus balloons from $500 to only $299.95. Buy an edge of space gift certificate before Dec. 25th and your student can send an experiment, photo, or keepsake item to the stratosphere, completely supported by an Earth to Sky Calculus launch and recovery team.

This is not only a great Christmas gift, but also a good kickstarter for science fair projects. Experiments will be flown and returned along with video footage, GPS tracking, temperature, pressure, altimetry and radiation data.

To take advantage of the discounted rate, payment must be received before Dec. 25th. However, the flight can take place at any time in the next 12 months. A Skype brainstorming session is included with each certificate. Dr. Tony Phillips and other members of the Earth to Sky team will chat with students to help them craft an experiment that will work in the harsh environment of the stratosphere.

More far out Christmas gifts may be found in the Earth to Sky Store.  All proceeds support space weather research.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Realtime Airglow Photo Gallery

Realtime Sprite 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. 11, 2016, the network reported 36 fireballs.
(24 sporadics, 7 Geminids, 2 sigma Hydrids, 2 Comae Berenicids, 1 December Monocerotid)



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 11, 2016 there were 1748 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:Asteroid


Miss Distance


2016 WQ8

Dec 8

5.1 LD

52 m

2016 XA

Dec 12

7.2 LD

29 m

2016 XW20

Dec 13

1.8 LD

21 m

2015 YA

Dec 13

9.6 LD

15 m

2015 XX169

Dec 13

7.5 LD

15 m

2016 XK18

Dec 18

5.8 LD

68 m

2015 YQ1

Dec 21

6.2 LD

11 m

2006 BZ7

Dec 22

74.5 LD

1.4 km

2015 BB

Jan 18

13.8 LD

45 m

2002 LS32

Jan 24

53.9 LD

1.0 km

1991 VK

Jan 25

25.2 LD

1.9 km

2000 WN107

Jan 26

62.3 LD

2.8 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: 555.1 km/sec
density: 4.6 protons/cm3

more data: ACEDSCOVR
Updated: Today at 1919 UTX-ray Solar Flares
6-hr max: B1
1715 UT Dec11
24-hr: B1 1715 UT Dec11
explanation | more data
Updated: Today at: 1900 UTDaily Sun: 11 Dec 16The sun is blank--no sunspots. This continues the sun's descent into Solar Minimum. Credit: SDO/HMI

Sunspot number: 0
What is the sunspot number?
Updated 11 Dec 2016

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 1 day
2016 total: 26 days (7%) 
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 11 Dec 2016

The Radio Sun
10.7 cm flux: 72 sfu

explanation | more data
Updated 11 Dec 2016

Current Auroral Oval:


Switch to: Europe, USA, New Zealand, Antarctica
Credit: NOAA/OvationPlanetary K-index
Now: Kp= 3 quiet
24-hr max: Kp= 4
explanation | more data
Interplanetary Mag. Field
Btotal: 5.2 nT
Bz: 2.0 nT south

more data: ACEDSCOVR
Updated: Today at 1918 UTCoronal Holes: 11 Dec 16
Earth is inside a stream of solar wind flowing from this large coronal hole. Credit: NASA/SDO.Noctilucent Clouds The southern season for noctilucent clouds began on Nov. 17th. 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 Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctica, PolarUpdated at: 12-11-2016 15:55:02

NOAA Forecasts

Updated at: 2016 Dec 10 2200 UTC


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Geomagnetic Storms:
Probabilities for significant disturbances in Earth's magnetic field are given for three activity levels: activeminor stormsevere stormUpdated at: 2016 Dec 10 2200 UTCMid-latitudes

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24-48 hr


20 %

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05 %

01 %


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High latitudes

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24-48 hr


15 %

15 %


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