159 Years Ago, A Geomagnetic Megastorm

Sept. 2, 2018: Picture this: A billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) slams into Earth’s magnetic field. Campers in the Rocky Mountains wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that the glow they see is sunrise. No, it’s the Northern Lights. People in Cuba read their morning paper by the red illumination of aurora borealis. Earth is peppered by particles so energetic, they alter the chemistry of polar ice.

Hard to believe? It really happened 159 years ago. This map shows where auroras were sighted in the early hours of Sept. 2, 1859:

As the day unfolded, the gathering storm electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire. The “Victorian Internet” was knocked offline. Magnetometers around the world recorded strong disturbances in the planetary magnetic field for more than a week.

The cause of all this was an extraordinary solar flare witnessed the day before by British astronomer Richard Carrington. His sighting on Sept. 1, 1859, marked the discovery of solar flares and foreshadowed a new field of study: space weather. According to a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences, if a similar “Carrington Event” occurred today, it could cause substantial damage to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require years for complete recovery.


In Sept. 1859, this large sunspot unleashed a record-setting solar flare. Sketch by R. C. Carrington.

Could it happen again? In fact, a similar event did happen only 6 years ago. On July 23, 2012, a powerful explosion on the sun hurled a Carrington-class CME away from the sun. Fortunately, it missed. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” says Prof. Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, who summarized the event at NOAA’s Space Weather Workshop in 2014.

In a paper published just a few months ago, researchers from the University of Birmingham used Extreme Value Theory to estimate the average time between “Carrington-like flares.” Their best answer: ~100 years, a value which suggests we may be overdue for a really big storm.

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!!”

Severe Space Weather on Mars

Oct. 4, 2017: More than 150 years after it happened, scientists are still taking about the Carrington Event—a solar storm in Sept. 1859 that sparked Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and sprayed the entire surface of Earth with high energy radiation.

On our planet, such global events are rare. On Mars, they happen surprisingly often—in fact, there was one just a few weeks ago.

The storm began on Sept. 10, 2017–a day the sun was supposed to be quiet: The solar cycle is currently at low ebb, near Solar Minimum, and strong flares are rare. Nevertheless, sunspot AR2673 erupted, producing a powerful X8-class solar flare that accelerated a potent spray of charged particles into space.

In a matter of hours, a “ground level event” (GLE) was underway on Mars. GLEs occur when energetic particles normally held at bay by a planet’s atmosphere or magnetic field penetrate all the way to the ground. Mars rover Curiosity detected the radiation spike as it crawled just south of the Martian equator.

“Radiation levels suddenly doubled and they remained high for nearly two days,” says Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD). “This is the largest event we have seen since Curiosity landed in 2012.”

Earth was in the line of fire, too, but our planet’s magnetic field and thick atmosphere mitigated the effect of the storm. The terrestrial GLE on Sept. 10th was restricted to polar regions and amounted to a meager 6% increase–a tiny fraction of what happened on Mars.

Mars got walloped because, simply put, it is more vulnerable to space weather. The Red Planet has no global magnetic field to protect it, and an atmosphere only 1% as thick as Earth’s. Energetic particles from the Sept. 10th explosion peppered the entire dayside surface of Mars while auroras fringed the upper atmosphere all around the globe.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft saw the auroras using its ultraviolet imager. “If a human had been present, with eyes sensitive to visible light, they would have probably seen Mars lit up in green light (557.7nm) much like auroras on Earth,” says Sonal Jain of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado.

Click to play a movie of the UV auroras on Mars

“Sonal had the excitement of being blown away when the raw data come in,” says his colleague Nick Schneider, also of LASP. “The auroras were 25 times brighter than the previous record.” Both scientists work with MAVEN data and specialize in Martian auroras.

“These global events are really interesting,” says Schneider. “On Earth It takes a truly extreme solar storm to cause global havoc thanks to the strength of our magnetic field. Mars’ lack of a global magnetic field means that planet-wide events are far more common. Indeed, since MAVEN went into Mars-orbit 3 years ago, we’ve seen a bunch of auroral displays that were probably global, even though this has been a really wimpy solar cycle.”

Hassler agrees. “Curiosity has seen 5 ground level events since 2012. They are not uncommon,” he says, “and they will probably grow stronger in the years ahead as we move through Solar Minimum and return to a more active phase of the solar cycle.”

Planners of future human missions to Mars will have to take into account the frequency of these “Martian Carrington Events,” increasingly revealed by rovers and orbiters of the Red Planet. Meanwhile, researchers are still poring over data from the latest, hoping to learn more. “Analysis of these observations, both at Mars and Earth, is just beginning,” says Hassler, “so stay tuned.”

CME Sweeps Aside Cosmic Rays

July 18,2017: On July 16th, a CME hit Earth’s magnetic field, sparking two days of geomagnetic storms and beautiful southern auroras. The solar storm cloud also swept aside some of the cosmic rays currently surrounding Earth. Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a space weather balloon to the stratosphere hours after the CME arrived. We detected a 7% decrease in X-rays and gamma-rays (two tracers of secondary cosmic rays). Neutron monitors in the Arctic and Antarctic recorded similar decrements. For instance, these data from the Bartol Research Institute show a nearly 8% drop in cosmic ray neutrons reaching the South Pole:

This is called a “Forbush Decrease,” named after physicist Scott E. Forbush who first described it in the 20th century. Wherever CMEs go, cosmic rays are deflected by magnetic fields inside the solar storm clouds. As a result, when solar activity is high, cosmic radiation around Earth is relatively low–a yin-yang relationship that holds throughout all phases of the solar cycle.

Lately, cosmic rays around Earth have been intensifying as the solar cycle plunges toward minimum. The CME of July 16th reversed that trend–but only for a few days. Solar activity has returned to low levels and cosmic rays are on the rise again.

Why do we care about cosmic rays? For one thing, they penetrate commercial airlines, dosing passengers and flight crews so much that pilots are classified as occupational radiation workers. Some research shows that cosmic rays can seed clouds and trigger lightning, potentially altering weather and climate. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1, #2, #3, #4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias in the general population.

Anthropogenic Space Weather

May 18, 2017: Space weather can have a big effect on human society. Sometimes human society returns the favor. A new study entitled “Anthropogenic Space Weather” just published in Space Science Reviews outlines how human activity shapes the space around our planet. A prime example: Human radio transmissions form a bubble in space protecting us from “killer electrons.”

Co-author Phil Erickson of MIT’s Haystack Observatory explains: “As Van Allen discovered in the 1950s and 1960s, there are two radiation belts surrounding Earth with a ‘slot’ between them. Our research is focused on the the outer radiation belt, which contains electrons with energies of a million or more electron-volts. These ‘killer electrons’ have the potential to damage spacecraft, even causing permanent failures.”

During strong geomagnetic storms, the outer radiation belt expands, causing the killer electrons to approach Earth. But NASA’s Van Allen Probes, a pair of spacecraft sent to explore the radiation belts, found that something was stopping the particles from getting too close.

“The penetration of the outer belt stopped right at the same place as the edge of VLF strong transmissions from humans on the ground,” says Erickson. “These VLF transmissions penetrate seawater, so we use them to communicate with submarines. They also propagate upward along Earth’s magnetic field lines, forming a ‘bubble’ of VLF waves that reaches out to about 2.8 Earth-radii–the same spot where the ultra-relativistic electrons seem to stop.”

VLF radio waves clear the area of killer electrons “via a wave-particle gyro-resonance,” says Erickson. “Essentially, they are just the right frequency to scatter the particles into our atmosphere where their energy is safely absorbed.”

“Because powerful VLF transmitters have been operating since before the dawn of the Space Age, it is possible that we have never observed the radiation belts in their pristine, unperturbed state,” notes the team, which includes John Foster, a colleague of Erickson at MIT and a key leader of this research, along with Dan Baker at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Other anthropogenic effects on space weather include artificial radiation belts created by nuclear tests, high-frequency wave heating of the ionosphere, and cavities in Earth’s magnetotail formed by chemical release experiments. Download the complete paper here.

Growing Peril for Astronauts?

NASA’s successful test flight of Orion on Dec. 5th heralds a renewed capability to send astronauts into deep space. A paper just published in the journal Space Weather, however, points out a growing peril to future deep space explorers: cosmic rays. The title of the article, penned by Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire and colleagues from seven other institutions, asks the provocative question, “Does the worsening galactic cosmic ray environment preclude manned deep space exploration?” Using data from a cosmic ray telescope onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they conclude that while increasing fluxes of cosmic rays “are not a show stopper for long duration missions (e.g., to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars), galactic cosmic radiation remains a significant and worsening factor that limits mission durations.” This figure from their paper shows the number of days a 30 year old astronaut can spend in interplanetary space before they reach their career limit in radiation exposure:

According to the plot, in the year 2014, a 30 year old male flying in a spaceship with 10 g/cm2 of aluminum shielding could spend approximately 700 days in deep space before they reach their radiation dose limit. The same astronaut in the early 1990s could have spent 1000 days in space.

What’s going on? Cosmic rays are intensifying. Galactic cosmic rays are a mixture of high-energy photons and subatomic particles accelerated to near-light speed by violent events such as supernova explosions. Astronauts are protected from cosmic rays in part by the sun: solar magnetic fields and the solar wind combine to create a porous ‘shield’ that fends off energetic particles from outside the solar system. The problem is, as the authors note, “The sun and its solar wind are currently exhibiting extremely low densities and magnetic field strengths, representing states that have never been observed during the Space Age. As a result of the remarkably weak solar activity, we have also observed the highest fluxes of cosmic rays in the Space Age.”

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. At the moment we are experiencing Solar Max, which should be a good time for astronauts to fly–but it’s not a good time. The solar maximum of 2011-2014 is the weakest in a century, allowing unusual numbers of cosmic rays to penetrate the solar system.

This situation could become even worse if, as some researchers suspect, the sun is entering a long-term phase of the solar cycle characterized by relatively weak maxima and deep, extended minima. In such a future, feeble solar magnetic fields would do an extra-poor job keeping cosmic rays at bay, further reducing the number of days astronauts can travel far from Earth.

To learn more about this interesting research, read the complete article in the online edition of Space Weather.