“Equinox Cracks” Forming in Earth’s Magnetic Field

March 11. 2018: The vernal equinox is less than 10 days away. That means one thing: Cracks are opening in Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers have long known that during weeks around equinoxes fissures form in Earth’s magnetosphere. Solar wind can pour through the gaps to fuel bright displays of Arctic lights. One such episode occurred on March 9th. “The sky exploded with auroras,” reports Kristin Berg, who sends this picture from Tromsø, Norway:

During the display, a stream of solar wind was barely grazing Earth’s magnetic field. At this time of year, that’s all it takes. Even a gentle gust of solar wind can breach our planet’s magnetic defenses.

This is called the the “Russell-McPherron effect,” named after the researchers who first explained it. The cracks are opened by the solar wind itself.  South-pointing magnetic fields inside the solar wind oppose Earth’s north-pointing magnetic field. The two, N vs. S, partially cancel one another, weakening our planet’s magnetic defenses. This cancellation can happen at any time of year, but it happens with greatest effect around the equinoxes. Indeed, a 75-year study shows that March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year, followed closely by September-October–a direct result of “equinox cracks.”

NASA and European spacecraft have been detecting these cracks for years. Small ones are about the size of California, and many are wider than the entire planet. While the cracks are open, magnetic fields on Earth are connected to those on the sun. Theoretically, it would be possible to pick a magnetic field line on terra firma and follow it all the way back to the solar surface. There’s no danger to people on Earth, however, because our atmosphere protects us, intercepting the rain of particles. The afterglow of this shielding action is called the “aurora borealis.”

Stay tuned for more Arctic lights as spring approaches.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

The Worsening Cosmic Ray Situation

March 5, 2018: Cosmic rays are bad–and they’re getting worse.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper just published in the research journal Space Weather. The authors, led by Prof. Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, show that radiation from deep space is dangerous and intensifying faster than previously expected.


The story begins four years ago when Schwadron and colleagues first sounded the alarm about cosmic rays. Analyzing data from the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) instrument onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), they found that cosmic rays in the Earth-Moon system were peaking at levels never before seen in the Space Age. The worsening radiation environment, they pointed out, was a potential peril to astronauts, curtailing how long they could safely travel through space.

This figure from their original 2014 paper shows the number of days a 30-year old male astronaut flying in a spaceship with 10 g/cm2 of aluminum shielding could go before hitting NASA-mandated radiation limits:


In the 1990s, the astronaut could spend 1000 days in interplanetary space. In 2014 … only 700 days. “That’s a huge change,” says Schwadron.

Galactic cosmic rays come from outside the solar system. They are a mixture of high-energy photons and sub-atomic particles accelerated toward Earth by supernova explosions and other violent events in the cosmos. Our first line of defense is the sun:  The sun’s magnetic field and solar wind combine to create a porous ‘shield’ that fends off cosmic rays attempting to enter the solar system. The shielding action of the sun is strongest during Solar Maximum and weakest during Solar Minimum–hence the 11-year rhythm of the mission duration plot above.

The problem is, as the authors note in their new paper, the shield is weakening: “Over the last decade, the solar wind has exhibited low densities and magnetic field strengths, representing anomalous states that have never been observed during the Space Age. As a result of this remarkably weak solar activity, we have also observed the highest fluxes of cosmic rays.”

Back in 2014, Schwadron et al used a leading model of solar activity to predict how bad cosmic rays would become during the next Solar Minimum, now expected in 2019-2020.  “Our previous work suggested a ∼ 20% increase of dose rates from one solar minimum to the next,” says Schwadron. “In fact, we now see that actual dose rates observed by CRaTER in the last 4 years exceed the predictions by ∼ 10%, showing that the radiation environment is worsening even more rapidly than we expected.” In this plot bright green data points show the recent excess:


The data Schwadron et al have been analyzing come from CRaTER on the LRO spacecraft in orbit around the Moon, which is point-blank exposed to any cosmic radiation the sun allows to pass. Here on Earth, we have two additional lines of defense: the magnetic field and atmosphere of our planet. Both mitigate cosmic rays.

But even on Earth the increase is being felt. The students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been launching space weather balloons to the stratosphere almost weekly since 2015. Sensors onboard those balloons show a 13% increase in radiation (X-rays and gamma-rays) penetrating Earth’s atmosphere:


X-rays and gamma-rays detected by these balloons are “secondary cosmic rays,” produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth’s upper atmosphere. They trace radiation percolating down toward our planet’s surface. The energy range of the sensors, 10 keV to 20 MeV, is similar to that of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners.

How does this affect us? Cosmic rays penetrate commercial airlines, dosing passengers and flight crews so much that pilots are classified by the International Commission on Radiological Protection as occupational radiation workers. Some research shows that cosmic rays can seed clouds and trigger, potentially altering weather and climate. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1, #2, #3, #4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias in the general population.

Cosmic rays will intensify even more in the years ahead as the sun plunges toward what may be the deepest Solar Minimum in more than a century. Stay tuned for updates.


Schwadron, N. A., et al (2014), Does the worsening galactic cosmic radiation environment observed by CRaTER preclude future manned deep space exploration?, Space Weather, 12, 622–632, doi:10.1002/2014SW001084.

Schwadron, N. A., et al (2018), Update on the worsening particle radiation environment observed by CRaTER and implications for future human deep-space exploration, Space Weather, doi: 10.1002/2017SW001803.


Rads on a Plane: The Data

Feb. 21, 2018: Many people think that only astronauts have to worry about cosmic radiation. Not so. Ordinary air travelers are exposed to cosmic rays, too. On a typical flight over the continental USA, radiation dose rates in economy class are more than 40 times higher than on the ground below. Cosmic rays penetrate the walls of aircraft with ease. This has  prompted the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) to classify pilots as occupational radiation workers–just like nuclear power plant engineers.

Since Jan. 2015, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been monitoring cosmic rays in airplanes. Our method is simple: We board planes carrying the same cosmic ray payload we routinely fly to the stratosphere on space weather balloons. Inside the airplane we measure X-ray, gamma-ray and neutron dose rates along with GPS altitude, latitude and longitude

Above: Flight paths forming the basis of our aviation radiation study. 2015-2017

Three years after our first flight, our data set is impressive. We have 14,183 GPS-tagged radiation measurements collected during 67 flights over 2 oceans and 5 continents. We have spent 236.4 hours onboard planes taking data. If you accumulated that into a single flight, it would amount to 9.8 uninterrupted days on a plane.

This substantial data set is allowing us to explore how radiation varies with altitude around the globe. It’s not the same everywhere. The Arctic, for example, differs sharply from the equator, and there are interesting departures from “normal” near the South Atlantic Anomaly. We’re also discovering how Earth’s natural magnetism shields travelers from radiation: there’s a strong correlation in our data between dose rate and the geomagnetic field around the airplane.

Best of all, we can now predict dose rates for flights that haven’t even taken off yet. Using the data from 2015-2017, we’re building an empirical predictive model and actively testing it against new flights in 2018. Early results show that it works well over the continental USA, and we are beginning to check international flights, too.

Stay tuned for updates!

Long Dead NASA Spacecraft Wakes Up

Jan. 26, 2018:  Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley has a hobby: He hunts spy satellites. Using an S-band radio antenna in Roberts Creek, British Columbia, he regularly scans the skies for radio signals from classified objects orbiting Earth. Since he started 5 years ago, Tilley has bagged dozens of secret or unlisted satellites. “It’s a lot of fun,” he confesses.

Earlier this month, Tilley was hunting for Zuma–a secretive United States government satellite lost in a launch mishap on Jan. 8th–when a J-shaped curve appeared on his computer screen. “It was the signature of a lost satellite,” he says, “but it was not Zuma.”

In a stroke of good luck that has dizzied space scientists, Tilley found IMAGE, a NASA spacecraft that “died” more than 10 years ago.

An artist’s concept of IMAGE flying over Earth’s north pole.

Short for “Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration,” IMAGE was launched in 2000 on a flagship mission to monitor space weather. Mapping the ebb and flow of plasma around Earth, IMAGE was able to watch our planet’s magnetosphere respond almost like a living organism to blasts of solar activity, while its ultraviolet cameras took gorgeous pictures of Earth’s global auroras.

“It had capabilities that no other spacecraft could match–before or since,” says. Patricia Reiff, a member of the original IMAGE science team at Rice University.

IMAGE was in the 5th year of its extended mission on Dec. 18, 2005, when the spacecraft suddenly went silent. No one knows why, although suspicions have focused on a power controller for the spacecraft’s transponder, which might have temporarily failed.

The one hope was a reboot: When IMAGE’s solar-powered batteries drained to zero during a eclipse by the Earth, onboard systems could restart and begin transmitting again. “If revival occurs, the mission should be able to continue as before with no limitations,” noted NASA’s IMAGE Failure Review Board in their 2006 report.

A deep eclipse in 2007, however, failed to produce the desired result. “After that, we stopped listening,” says Reiff.

Radio signals from IMAGE, detected by Scott Tilley on Jan. 20, 2018. [more]

That is, until Scott Tilley started looking for Zuma. “When I saw the radio signature, I ran a program called STRF to identify it,” he says. Developed by Cees Bassa, a professional astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, STRF treats Earth-orbiting satellites much like binary pulsars–deducing their orbital elements from the Doppler shifts of their radio signals. “The program immediately matched the orbit of the satellite I saw to IMAGE. It was that easy,” says Tilley.

Sometime between 2007 and 2018–no one knows when–IMAGE woke up and started talking. Now, NASA has to find a way to answer.

“The good news is, NASA is working on a recovery plan,” says Reiff. “UC Berkeley still has a ground station that was used for realtime tracking and control. They are scrambling to find the old software and see it they can get the bird to respond. Apparently there are data side lobes on the transmission, so that is a good sign.”

Researchers would love to have IMAGE back. The spacecraft has a unique Big Picture view of Earth’s magnetosphere and “its global-scale auroral imager would be fantastic for nowcasting space weather,” says Reiff. “Fingers crossed!!”

Blue Moon Lunar Eclipse

Jan. 25, 2018: On Wednesday, Jan. 31st, there’s going to be a “Blue Moon”–the second full Moon in a calendar month. People who go outside to look may see a different hue: bright orange. This Blue Moon is going to be eclipsed, swallowed by copper-colored shadow of Earth for more than an hour. The eclipse will be visible from Asia, Australia, and most of North America: visibility map.

Other time zones: UT, EST, CST, MST, PST, HST. Credit: Larry Koehn.

The bright orange color of the eclipse may be chalked up to volcanic activity–or rather, lack thereof. Atmospheric scientist Richard Keen from the University of Colorado explains:

“During a lunar eclipse, most of the light illuminating the Moon passes through Earth’s stratosphere where it is reddened by scattering,” he says. “If the stratosphere is loaded with dust from volcanic eruptions, the eclipse will be dark. The cataclysmic explosion of Tambora in 1815, for instance, turned the Moon into a dark, starless hole in sky during two subsequent eclipses.”

But Earth is experiencing a bit of a volcanic lull. We haven’t had a major volcanic blast since 1991 when Mt Pinatubo awoke from a 500 year slumber and sprayed ten billion cubic meters of ash, rock and debris into Earth’s atmosphere. Recent eruptions have been puny by comparison and have failed to make a dent on the stratosphere. To Keen, the interregnum means one thing: “This eclipse is going to be bright and beautiful.”

From “Two Centuries of Volcanic Aerosols Derived from Lunar Eclipse Records” by R.  Keen

Keen studies lunar eclipses because of what they can tell us about Earth’s energy balance. A transparent stratosphere “lets the sunshine in” and actually helps warm the Earth below. “The lunar eclipse record indicates a clear stratosphere has contributed about 0.2 degrees to warming since the 1980s.”

“Mt. Pinatubo finished a 110-year episode of frequent major eruptions that began with Krakatau in 1883,” he says. “Since then, lunar eclipses have been relatively bright, and the Jan. 31st eclipse should be no exception.”

In the USA, the best time to look is during the hours before sunrise. Western states are favored: The Moon makes first contact with the core of Earth’s shadow at 3:48 am Pacific Time, kicking off the partial eclipse. Totality begins at 4:52 am PST as Earth’s shadow engulfs the lunar disk for more than an hour. “Maximum orange” is expected around 5:30 am PST. Easternmost parts of the USA will miss totality altogether.

“I welcome any and all reports on the brightness of this eclipse for use in my volcano-climate studies,” says Keen.  While actual brightness measurements (in magnitudes) made near mid-totality are most useful, I can also make use of Danjon-scale ratings. Please be sure to note the time, method, and instruments used in your reports.” Observations may be submitted here.


The Pacific Radiation Bowl

Jan. 22, 2018: For years, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been flying balloons to the stratosphere to monitor cosmic rays penetrating Earth’s atmosphere. Lately, we’ve been flying the same payloads onboard airplanes. We want to map Earth’s radiation environment at aviation altitudes where millions of people are routinely exposed to elevated levels of cosmic rays.

Recently we encountered an interesting feature in data taken over the Pacific Ocean: a “radiation bowl.” On Nov. 30th, 2017, Hervey Allen, a computer scientist at the University of Oregon, carried our radiation sensors onboard a commercial flight from San Francisco, California, to Auckland, New Zealand: map. As his plane cruised at a nearly constant altitude (35,000 ft) across the equator, radiation levels gracefully dipped, then recovered, in a bowl-shaped pattern:



In one way, this beautiful curve is no surprise. We expect dose rates to reach a low point near the equator, because that is where Earth’s magnetic field provides the greatest shielding against cosmic rays. Interestingly, however, the low point is not directly above the equator. A parabolic curve fit to the data shows that the actual minimum occurred at 5.5 degrees N latitude.

Is Earth’s “radiation equator” offset from the geographic equator? Very likely it is. Earth’s magnetic field is tilted with respect to Earth’s spin axis and, moreover, there are many inhomogeneities in our planetary magnetic field that may create radiation zones of interest in unexpected places.

We are now planning additional trips across the equator to map the band of least radiation girdling our planet. In fact, we are working on a dataset now that includes an equator-crossing between the USA and Chile. Stay tuned for updates.

The Sun is Dimming

Dec. 15, 2017: On Friday, Dec. 15th, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SpaceX launched a new sensor to the International Space Station named TSIS-1. Its mission: to measure the dimming of the sun. As the sunspot cycle plunges toward its 11-year minimum, NASA satellites are tracking a decline in total solar irradiance (TSI). Across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the sun’s output has dropped nearly 0.1% compared to the Solar Maximum of 2012-2014. This plot shows the TSI since 1978 as observed from nine previous satellites:

Click here for a complete explanation of this plot.

The rise and fall of the sun’s luminosity is a natural part of the solar cycle. A change of 0.1% may not sound like much, but the sun deposits a lot of energy on the Earth, approximately 1,361 watts per square meter. Summed over the globe, a 0.1% variation in this quantity exceeds all of our planet’s other energy sources (such as natural radioactivity in Earth’s core) combined. A 2013 report issued by the National Research Council (NRC), “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate,” spells out some of the ways the cyclic change in TSI can affect the chemistry of Earth’s upper atmosphere and possibly alter regional weather patterns, especially in the Pacific.

NASA’s current flagship satellite for measuring TSI, the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE), is now more than six years beyond its prime-mission lifetime. TSIS-1 will take over for SORCE, extending the record of TSI measurements with unprecedented precision. It’s five-year mission will overlap a deep Solar Minimum expected in 2019-2020. TSIS-1 will therefore be able to observe the continued decline in the sun’s luminosity followed by a rebound as the next solar cycle picks up steam. Installing and checking out TSIS-1 will take some time; the first science data are expected in Feb. 2018. Stay tuned.

Rock Comet Approaches Earth

Dec. 11, 2017: You’ve heard of comets. But have you ever heard of a rock comet? They exist, and a big one is approaching Earth this week. 3200 Phaethon will fly past our planet on Dec. 16th only 10 million km away. Measuring 5 km in diameter, this strange object is large enough for amateur astronomers to photograph through backyard telescopes. A few nights ago, the Astronomy Club of the Sing Yin Secondary School in Hong Kong video-recorded 3200 Phaethon’s approach using a 4-inch refractor:

“We observed 3200 Phaethon from the basketball court of our school campus,” the club reports. “Our school is located close to the city center where the visual limiting magnitude is about 2 to 3. Despite the glare, we were able to record the motion of this object.” (For others who wish to do this, Bob King of Sky & Telescope has written an excellent set of observing tips.)

3200 Phaethon is the source of the annual Gemini meteor shower, which is also coming this week. Sky watchers can see dozens of Geminids per hour on Dec. 13th and 14th as gravelly bits of the rock comet disintegrate in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The best time to look is during the dark hours before sunrise when Gemini is high in the sky.

“This is 3200 Phaethon’s closest encounter with Earth until December of 2093, when it will come to within 1.8 million miles,” notes Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Despite the proximity of the rock comet, he doesn’t expect to see any extra Geminids this year. “It would take at least another revolution around the sun before new material from this flyby could encounter Earth – probably longer.”

A “rock comet” is an asteroid that comes very close to the sun–so close that solar heating scorches plumes of dust right off its stony surface. 3200 Phaethon comes extremely close to the sun, only 0.14 AU away, less than half the distance of Mercury, making it so hot that lead could flow like water across its sun-blasted surface. Astronomers believe that 3200 Phaethon might occasionally grow a comet-like tail of gravelly debris–raw material for the Geminid meteor shower. Indeed, NASA STEREO-A spacecraft may have seen this happening in 2010. There is much to learn about 32900 Phaethon, which is why NASA radars will be pinging it as it passes by. Stay tuned for updates.

Atmospheric Radiation is Increasing

Dec. 9, 2017: Since the spring of 2015, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been flying balloons to the stratosphere over California to measure cosmic rays. Soon after our monitoring program began, we quickly realized that radiation levels are increasing. Why? The main reason is the solar cycle. In recent years, sunspot counts have plummeted as the sun’s magnetic field weakens. This has allowed more cosmic rays from deep space to penetrate the solar system. As 2017 winds down, our latest measurements show the radiation increase continuing apace–with an interesting exception, circled in yellow:

In Sept. 2017, the quiet sun surprised space weather forecasters with a sudden outburst of explosive activity. On Sept. 3rd, a huge sunspot appeared. In the week that followed, it unleashed the strongest solar flare in more than a decade (X9-class), hurled a powerful CME toward Earth, and sparked a severe geomagnetic storm (G4-class) with Northern Lights appearing as far south as Arkansas. During the storm we quickened the pace of balloon launches and found radiation dropping to levels we hadn’t seen since 2015. The flurry of solar flares and CMEs actually pushed some cosmic rays away from Earth.

Interestingly, after the sun’s outburst, radiation levels in the stratosphere took more than 2 months to fully rebound. Now they are back on track, increasing steadily as the quiet sun resumes its progress toward Solar Minimum. The solar cycle is not expected to hit rock bottom until 2019 or 2020, so cosmic rays should continue to increase, significantly, in the months and years ahead. Stay tuned for updates as our balloons continue to fly.

Technical note: The radiation sensors onboard our helium balloons detect X-rays and gamma-rays in the energy range 10 keV to 20 MeV. These energies, which span the range of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners, trace secondary cosmic rays, the spray of debris created when primary cosmic rays from deep space hit the top of Earth’s atmosphere.


Nov. 23, 2017: On Nov. 22nd, the face of the sun was unblemished by sunspots, and NOAA classified solar activity as “very low.”  Nevertheless, the skies above Tromsø, Norway, exploded with a remarkable outburst of pink auroras. “Suddenly, the whole valley turned white (with a hint of pink),” says Frank Meissner, who witnessed and photographed the display. “It was over after about 20 seconds.”

How bright was it? “The brightness of the auroras may be compared to the car lights in the background of my photo,” points out Meissner.

In nearby Kvaløya, aurora tour guide Marianne Bergli witnessed a surge of pink that was, if anything, even more dramatic:

“Ironically, our guests stopped taking pictures,” says Bergli. “They were awestruck and frozen to the spot by the incredible pink and green lights overhead.”

This outburst was powered by a stream of solar wind flowing from a hole in the sun’s atmosphere. Such holes are common during Solar Minimum, and they require no sunspots to form. That’s why auroras continue throughout the 11-year solar cycle.

The pink color of the outburst tells us something interesting about the solar wind on Nov. 22nd: it seems to have been unusually penetrating. Most auroras are green–a verdant glow caused by energetic particles from space hitting oxygen atoms 100 km to 300 km above Earth’s surface. Pink appears when the energetic particles descend lower than usual, striking nitrogen molecules at the 100 km level and below.

In recent winters, big displays of pink and white auroras have coincided with spotless suns often enough to make observers wonder if there is a connection.  If so, more outbursts are in the offing as the sun continues its plunge toward a deep Solar Minimum. Stay tuned for pink!

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery