Nov. 6, 2022: It could happen again–and soon. Twenty-one years ago, a full-halo CME struck Earth’s magnetic field, sparking a severe G4-class geomagnetic storm. “Skies over Central Europe glowed bright red and violet,” recalls Heiko Ulbricht, who photographed the display from Saxony, Germany, on Nov. 6, 2001:
“The shock front hit the Earth’s magnetic field around 2 a.m. CET–good timing for sky watchers in Europe,” says Ulbricht. From there, auroras spread around the world, descending as far south as Florida, Texas, and California in the United States. The storm persisted for more than 24 hours.
The CME left the sun two days earlier, propelled by an X1-class solar flare from sunspot AR9684. SOHO coronagraph images of the CME were quickly overwhelmed by a “snowstorm” of energetic particles accelerated by shock waves in the approaching storm cloud:
The kind of explosion that produced this storm is, interestingly, not rare. Young Solar Cycle 25 has already produced 8 similar X-flares since 2021. None of the related CMEs delivered a direct hit, however.
“If you look at the sun today, it could definitely produce a spectacle of this kind again,” says Ulbricht. Browse the aurora gallery from 21 years ago to see what might be coming.
Oct. 31, 2022: Have you ever heard of the “Halloween Fireballs?” Astronomers call them Taurid meteors. They appear every year from late October through early November when Earth passes through a stream of debris associated with Comet 2P/Encke. Dan Bush photographed this Taurid exploding over Albany, Missouri:
“Fireball season has arrived,” says Bush. “I have caught many with my meteor camera system including this Taurid fireball above the clouds on Oct. 27th and another good one on Oct. 28th”
We’re about to see a lot more of these. Forecasters believe that a swarm of Taurid meteoroids is approaching Earth, and it could double the usual rate of fireballs–not only on Halloween, but also through the early weeks of November.
Taurid meteors are thought to be debris from a giant comet that broke apart in the inner Solar System 10 to 20 thousand years ago. The breakup produced a mixture of dust and larger bodies that are still present today. Comet 2P/Encke itself may be just one of the fragments.
Over the years, Jupiter’s gravity has shepherded some of these meteoroids into a well-defined cloud–the “Taurid Swarm.” It visits Earth every 3 or 7 years. Previous encounters with the Swarm in 2005 and 2015 produced showers of fireballs observed around the world. The last outburst was 7 years ago, which means 2022 should be a Swarm year, too.
In 1975 the Swarm contacted the Moon, making Apollo seismic sensors ring with evidence of objects hitting the lunar surface. If there’s a repeat strike this year, Nov. 8th might be a good time to look for it. The Moon’s surface will be darkened by Earth’s shadow during a total lunar eclipse, improving the visibility of any exploding lunar meteors.
Although the Taurid shower typically peaks on Nov. 5th, it is a broad maximum, weeks long. Any of the nights ahead could produce a Taurid display. Look up during the hours around midnight; you can expect to see a few fireballs per hour streaking from the horns of Taurus–and many more if the Swarm arrives.
Oct. 17, 2022: Astronomers have never seen anything quite like it. On Oct. 9, 2022, Earth-orbiting satellites detected the strongest gamma-ray burst (GRB) in modern history: GRB221009A. How strong was it? It caused electrical currents to flow through the surface of our planet. Dr. Andrew Klekociuk in Tasmania recorded the effect using an Earth Probe Antenna:
The blue curve is a signal from Klekociuk’s antenna, which was sensing VLF (very low frequency) currents in the soil at the time of the blast. The orange curve shows the gamma-ray burst recorded by the high-energy STIX telescope on Europe’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft, one of many spacecraft that detected the event. The waveforms are a nearly perfect match.
“I am a climate scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division–that’s my day job,” says Klekociuk. “VLF is my hobby. I started doing VLF radio measurements in the 1970’s when I was in high school. This is the first time I have detected a gamma-ray burst.”
Klekociuk’s unusual “ham rig” uses Earth itself as a giant antenna. In his back garden there are two metal spikes stuck into the ground 75 meters apart. They are connected to a radio receiver via insulated buried wires. In recent years amateur radio operators have been experimenting with this weird kind of antenna to detect VLF radio signals circling our planet in the Earth-ionosphere waveguide. Earth’s crust forms one of the waveguide’s walls, allowing Earth Probe antennas to detect distant transmitters.
“During the gamma-ray burst I detected flickering from multiple stations,” says Klekociuk, who made this map showing transmission paths illuminated by the GRB:
Researchers have known since 1983 that gamma-ray bursts can ionize Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, disturb the great waveguide. This appears to be the first time anyone has recorded the effect using an Earth Probe Antenna.
The outburst on Oct. 9th shocked astronomers. Consider this tweet from Phil Evans of the University of Leicester in the immediate aftermath of the burst: “It’s bright. Really bright. Like, stupidly really bright.” Evans works with data from NASA’s Swift gamma-ray observatory, and the overflowing signal had apparently broken some of his plotting software.
Researchers have since pinpointed the burst. It came from a dusty galaxy 2.4 billion light years away, almost certainly triggered by a supernova explosion giving birth to a black hole. This is actually the closest GRB ever recorded, thus accounting for its extreme intensity.
“In our research group, we’ve been referring to this burst as the ‘BOAT’, or Brightest Of All Time, because when you look at the thousands of bursts gamma-ray telescopes have been detecting since the 1990s, this one stands apart,” says Jillian Rastinejad, an astronomer at Northwestern University who has been monitoring the burst’s afterglow using the Gemini South Telescope in Chile.
Meanwhile, other observers in the UK and Germany have also reported ionospheric disturbances resulting from the burst. They all used regular above-ground antennas.
Oct. 15, 2022: Most spacecraft try to avoid hitting the atmosphere. Lucy is about to do it on purpose. On Oct. 16th, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will skim Earth’s atmosphere, passing only 220 miles (350 kilometers) above our planet’s surface. Near closest approach over Australia it will be visible to the naked eye glowing almost as brightly as a 1st magnitude star.
This is a gravity assist maneuver–the first of three required for Lucy’s complicated mission to visit 8 different asteroids. The slingshot will give Lucy the energy it needs to fly towards the asteroid belt and, its ultimate destination, the orbit of Jupiter.
Named for a hominid fossil found in 1974 in Africa, Lucy is on a mission to study a completely different kind of relic: the Trojan asteroids. These are primitive leftovers from the formation of our solar system, collected into swarms around two of Jupiter’s Lagrange points. Sensors onboard the spacecraft will examine their appearance and composition, putting competing theories of planetary genesis to the test.
To reach the Trojans, Lucy must first return to Earth. Launched on Oct. 16, 2021, the spacecraft is coming home after exactly one year in space. Lucy’s trajectory will bring it deep into near Earth orbit, passing through a region full of Earth-orbiting satellites and debris. NASA will be ready to make last-minute adjustments to avoid collisions. The altitude is so low, the mission team had to include the effect of atmospheric drag when designing the flyby. Passing so close allows Lucy to extract maximum energy from Earth’s gravitational field.
Observers in western Australia will be the first to see Lucy. At around 10:55 UTC (6:55 p.m. local time) on Oct. 16th, the spacecraft will race overhead shining like a 1st or 2nd magnitude star. At the apex of its brightness, it will suddenly disappear into Earth’s shadow, vanishing at 11:02 UTC (7:02 p.m. local time).
Lucy will continue over the Pacific Ocean in darkness and emerge from the Earth’s shadow at 4:26 a.m. PDT (11:26 UTC). By that time it will have dimmed to 6th or 7th magnitude. Amateur astronomers in the western United States should be able to see Lucy using binoculars or a small telescope.
After the gravity assist, Lucy will recede from Earth, passing by the Moon and taking a few pictures before continuing out into interplanetary space. It might remain bright enough to see using backyard telescopes for more than 24 hours.
Want to see Lucy? You can spot the spacecraft using observing tips from the Southwest Research Institute. Ephemerides from JPL are recommended, too.
Sept. 27, 2022: On Monday, Sept. 26th, NASA’s DART spacecraft hit asteroid Dimorphos. Surprising even NASA, ground-based telescopes had no trouble seeing the impact. Astronomers with the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) in Hawaii recorded a bright cloud of debris:
This was the result of the 1,340-pound spacecraft plunging into Dimorphos at 14,000 mph. Most of the debris is probably asteroid dust, but some of DART may be in there, too. A similar video was recorded by the 1-meter Lesedi telescope in South Africa.
Mission scientists say DART hit the asteroid less than 17 meters off center. Think about that: 17 meters off at a distance of 11 million kilometers. NASA still has the right stuff.
Now that the dust has cleared, astronomers are monitoring Dimorphos’s orbit to find out whether or not it has changed in response to the strike. Even a slight shift would prove that human tech can alter an asteroid’s trajectory–a possible strategy for future Planetary Defense.
Sept. 13, 2022: A minor geomagnetic storm is supposed to be minor. That’s why even experts were surprised on Feb. 4, 2022, when dozens of Starlink satellites started falling out of the sky. A weak CME had hit Earth’s magnetic field, and the resulting G1-class (minor) storm was bringing them down:
How could this happen? A new paper published in the research journal Space Weather provides the answer.
“Although it was only ‘minor,’ the storm pumped almost 1200 gigawatts of energy into Earth’s atmosphere,” explains lead author Tong Dang of the University of Science and Technology of China. “This extra energy heated Earth’s upper atmosphere and sharply increased aerodynamic drag on the satellites.”
SpaceX launched the satellites from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 3, 2022. Forty-nine (49) Starlinks were crowded inside the Falcon 9 rocket; less than a quarter would survive.
As was SpaceX’s practice at the time, the satellites were deployed at an altitude of 210 km–their first stop en route to an operational altitude near 600 km. In the satellite business, 210 km is considered to be low, barely above the atmosphere. SpaceX starts there in case any satellite malfunctions after launch. From 210 km, a “bad sat” can be easily de-orbited.
A little too easily, as it turns out.
Using a physics-based computer model named “TIEGCM,” Dang and colleagues simulated conditions during the storm. As geomagnetic energy heated Earth’s atmosphere, the air density at 210 km increased globally by 20% with “hot spots” as high as 60%. This movie shows what happened:
Starlink dodged the worst spots. “The satellites did not hit any of the 60% regions,” says Dang. “But that didn’t save them.” The weaker 20% enhancements were enough to bring down 38 out of 49 satellites.
To prevent this from happening again, SpaceX has started launching to 320 km instead of 210 km. Earth’s atmosphere has to reach that much higher to drag the satellites back during a geomagnetic storm. Since the change, more than 1200 additional Starlink satellites have been launched on 24 rockets without incident.
There’s still danger, though. “Air density at 320 km is an order of magnitude less (compared to 210 km), but it’s not completely safe,” cautions Dang’s co-author Jiuhou Lei, also from the University of Science and Technology of China. “During an extreme geomagnetic storm, density could increase from 200% to 800% even at these higher altitudes.”
Extreme storms may be in the offing. Young Solar Cycle 25 is just getting started. The profusion of minor storms we are observing today will intensify in the years ahead especially as we approach Solar Max around 2025.
Elon Musk’s note to self: Check the space weather forecast.
Sept. 10, 2022: Later today, SpaceX will launch an unusual satellite: BlueWalker 3. Designed to supply 4G cell phone signals from space, Bluewalker 3 will unfurl a large antenna spanning 64 square meters–the size of a squash court:
This flat surface orbiting 500 kilometers above Earth will reflect a lot of sunlight, which could make the satellite extremely visible to observers on the ground. It could become brighter than the planet Venus, outshining everything in the night sky except the Moon.
While this is only a single satellite for now, Bluewalker’s maker AST SpaceMobile plans to launch more than 100 larger satellites called BlueBirds. These satellites, which could be more than twice the size of BlueWalker 3, would appear even brighter in the sky.
For astronomers, the satellites could create bright streaks across images from ground-based telescope, potentially making them unusable for observing more distant objects.
Should we be concerned? Maybe. First let’s see how bright Bluewalker 3 actually is. It is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept 10th between 9:10 p.m. to 9:20 p.m. EDT. A batch of 34 Starlink satellites will share the ride.
Update: SpaceX successfully launched the huge BlueWalker 3 communications satellite and 34 Starlink satellites on Sept. 10th at 9:20 pm EDT.
Sept. 1, 2022: When you hear the words “dung beetle” you probably think of poop. After you read this article, a different picture may come to mind: The Milky Way.
In 2009, entomologists made an astonishing discovery. Nocturnal dung beetles (Scarabaeus satyrus) can navigate using the Milky Way. Although the compound eyes of beetles cannot resolve individual stars, this species can see the Milky Way as a stripe across the sky and perhaps even sense features within it such as the galactic center and lanes of stardust.
“Currently, dung beetles are the only animals we know of that use the Milky Way for reliable orientation,” says James Foster of the University of Konstanz in Germany. “They are excellent little astronomers.”
A quick review of dung beetles: They are nature’s sanitation crew. Whenever a pile of brown material is dumped in the forest, dung beetles converge to clean up the mess. Each beetle sculpts a dung ball, which they roll away in a straight line. Far from the pile, the ball will be buried and eaten, and sometimes used as bedding for dung beetle eggs.
It sounds simple, but there’s a problem. Dung beetles are combative. If two beetles leaving the pile bump into one other, they can get into a brutal wrestling match often ending with overhead judo-style full body throws. Wandering around in circles (like lost humans do) boosts the odds of a fight even more. Dung beetles have therefore evolved the ability to navigate to safety in quick straight lines.
During the day they steer by the sun. Dung beetles can see polarization patterns in the daytime sky, and use these patterns to hold course. A single patch of blue sky is sufficient. The trick works at night, too. Dung beetles are the only known creatures who can see the polarization of moonlight, which is 100 million times weaker than daylight polarization. Studies show that dung beetles can walk straight as accurately at night as during the day, even when the Moon is a faint crescent.
But what happens when there’s no sun or Moon? In the early 2000s, this question troubled two pioneers of dung beetle research, Eric Warrant and Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden. To find the answer, they took some beetles to the planetarium at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and projected the Milky Way onto the domed ceiling. The beetles saw it, and navigated.
Their discovery prompted a veritable explosion in dung beetle research. James Foster is a leader in the field, publishing new results every few years.
Foster and colleagues have built a rudimentary planetarium just for dung beetles. It uses LED lights to mimic the Milky Way as beetles see it through their compound eyes. In 2017 they found that dung beetles were able to distinguish between north and south arms of the Milky Way, sensing intensity contrasts as low as 13%. This threshold puts features such as the galactic center in Sagittarius and the Great Rift in Cygnus theoretically within range of beetle senses.
Next they added city lights to their experiment–and the results were not good. “Light pollution may be forcing beetles to abandon the Milky Way as their compass,” worries Foster.
In a paper published July 2021, Foster’s team described how urban lights wipe out the Milky Way, reduce the polarization of moonlight by 60% to 70%, and “create anthropogenic celestial cues.” The last item is worst of all. Spotlights and brightly lit buildings mesmerize beetles who suddenly ignore the sky and make a beeline for manmade bulbs.
“These beacons draw beetles towards the most hostile regions of their environments,” says Foster. “After rolling their balls some distance, beetles need to find a patch of soft sand where they can dig in. They are unlikely to find that in the immediate vicinity of bright artificial lights, whether in cities or the countryside, since these are usually associated with concrete and tarmac.”
Dung beetles aren’t the only ones. Researchers believe they are only scratching the surface of this field with potentially thousands of species watching the stars. Everything from simple light bulbs to sophisticated satellite mega-constellations may be affecting these members of our ecosystem.
Sept. 6, 2002: Something just exploded on the farside of the sun. NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft recorded a magnificent full-halo CME emerging during the late hours of Sept. 5th:
A NASA model of the CME shows it heading away from Earth and directly toward Venus. This will be the second time in a week that Venus has been hammered by a significant solar storm. An earlier CME struck on Sept. 1st, probably launched by the same farside sunspot.
“This is no run of the mill event,” says George Ho of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. “Many science papers will be studying this for years to come.”
Ho is the principal investigator for an energetic particle detector onboard Europe’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft–and he is getting a lot of data right now. Solar Orbiter just performed a close flyby of Venus (only 6420 km away) to adjust its orbit around the sun. It is in the perfect position to observe the storm.
This plot shows a wave of energetic particles washing over the spacecraft:
“I can safely say the Sept. 5th event is one of the largest (if not THE largest) Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) storms that we have seen so far since Solar Orbiter launched in 2020,” says Ho. “It is at least an order of magnitude stronger than the radiation storm from last week’s CME.”
“In fact, the >10 MeV and >50 MeV particle intensity has not subsided since the beginning of the storm yesterday,” adds Ho. “This is indicative of a very fast and powerful interplanetary shock, and the inner heliosphere may be filled with these high-energy particles for a long time. I think I’ve only seen couple of these in the last couple solar cycles.”
Earth is not affected by the storm, which is happening on the opposite side of the sun. However, we may not be safe from its source. The underlying explosion almost certainly happened in the magnetic canopy of AR3088, an active sunspot that popped up on the Earthside of the sun in August. It is now transiting the farside, apparently bigger and angrier than before. The sun’s rotation will turn AR3088 toward us again in little more than a week, putting Earth back in the line of fire. Stay tuned.Solar flare alerts:SMS Text
Aug. 31, 2022: A CME billowed away from the farside of the sun yesterday, Aug. 30th, and it was spectacular. Coronagraphs onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) recorded a full halo storm cloud:
If Earth were in the crosshairs, we would be bracing for a strong geomagnetic storm. Instead, Venus will absorb the blow. NASA models show the CME making a direct hit on the second planet.
The Venus impact on Sept. 1st (~0600 UT) will not cause a geomagnetic storm. It can’t. Venus has no internally-generated global magnetic field. Rather, the impact will erode some atmosphere from Venus’s unprotected cloudtops–a process that does not occur on Earth.
The source of the CME is probably active sunspot AR3088, which left the Earthside of the sun two days ago. This sunspot was extremely active while we could see it from Earth. Now Venus is in the line of fire.
Coincidentally, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft is currently very close to Venus. That means it can study the CME as it passes by. If explosions from AR3088 continue apace, Solar Orbiter could get great data in the next week as potentially many storm clouds wash over the spacecraft.