Chemically Enhanced Aurora

On April 5 NASA scientists launched sounding rocket mission AZURE (Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment) from Norway’s Andoya Space Center. Twin rockets deployed chemical tracers capable of allowing researchers to track the flow of neutral and charged particles during an active geomagnetic storm. Emergency service switchboards were inundated with UFO sighting hysteria – seems no one bothered to alert residents of AZURE’s chemical meddling.

Lights over Lapland  webcam operator Chad Blakely captured the first chemical puffs. Video below from Adrien Mauduit documents the spectacle.


Aurora Spring

Every March, aurora spring taunts science. Persistent cheekiness flies in the face of conventional wisdom – inexplicably, sudden auroras erupt with alarming intensity.  “Auroral substorms” herald the return of northern hemisphere Spring. In 2007 NASA launched the THEMIS mission (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), five identical satellites lined up to detect streams of plasma and cosmic particles.

“The satellites have detected magnetic ‘ropes’ connecting Earth’s upper atmosphere directly to the Sun,” says Dave Sibeck, project scientist for the mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “We believe that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras.”

Leaving science to hunt substorm’s elusive key – treat yourself to four and a half minutes of the “world’s first real time northern lights”. Unadulterated, void of timelapse pageantry – a catch your breath audience with aurora spring.

Aurora Magic

I’ve tried to explain encounters with Northern Lights – even thinking about Auroras puts a silly grin on my face. To lay eyes on their magic is to be changed forever. Hypnotic, mesmerizing, electric, rejuvenating and tranquil; they sing to you as their fingers touch every fibre of your being. Impossible to look away; afraid the spell might be broken.

I found this video on – taken last night at Abisko National Park in Sweden. It can’t come close to seeing them yourself, it can leave you pondering possibilities.

Massive AR 1785

Massive sunspot AR 1785 – eleven times the diameter of earth – now faces our planet with potential for some nasty flares. Space weather forecasters at NOAA predict a 55% chance of M-class and 10% X-class for today.

Luckily earth has the magnetosphere which deflects solar wind and concentrates solar energy at the magnetic pole. Scientists have known for a long time the magnetosphere wasn’t perfect; just as the ozone layer develops “holes”, our magnetic shield is prone to “cracks”. Anyone lucky enough to see an aurora has witnessed the power of electrically charged solar winds.

In 1961 scientist Jim Dungey theorized these cracks occurred when the solar energy arrived packing a magnetic field that travelled in the opposite direction from our magnetic field. We now know these cracks can remain open for hours, allowing billions of electrically charged particles to light up the sky. Severe solar storms can wipe out satellites, communication, and power.

AR 1785 will most likely blast tons of plasma into space before fading away. Geomagnetic storms will rage –  airplanes might change course to avoid radiation, auroras will dazzle, and few will be the wiser. I don’t lose sleep over space weather, I just wish more people understood the implications of a direct hit through an unlucky crack that could plunge us into darkness for months.

Photo by Taichi Nakamura of Dunedin New Zealand – southern hemisphere auroras when earth passed through a region of southward magnetic field, opening a crack in the magnetosphere on July 6.

Today in Space

I haven’t done a space report for a while. Today we dodged a big one. A massive eruption on the far side of the sun could have had some interesting consequences had it been directed at earth.

The solar wind is steady at 396 Km/sec. A mind boggling speed when you stop to think about it, yet just an average day on the sun.

Of the current 1353 Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHA) – any object 100 Lunar Distance (LD) or less from earth, (LD is the distance from earth to the moon), the closest one for the remainder of 2012 passes by tomorrow. Named 2012VS76 it will come within 2.4 LD and measures 18m across. The largest is 4179 Toutatis, on Dec. 12 it will pass 18 LD. for which we can all be thankful as Toutatis is nearly 3 Km. wide.

Sunspots AR1610 and 1614 are getting restless, NASA predicts only a 25% chance of an M class eruption and 5% for an X. There has been some impressive geomagnetic activity lately. Geomagnetic storms occur in the upper atmosphere when magnetic energy from the sun, propelled by solar wind or energy from coronal holes messes with our magnetosphere. A recent magnetic storm resulted in rare red auroras. We can expect spectacular auroras for the next few days.

First photo – NASA – recent magnetic eruption. Followed by a picture of red auroras taken by David E. Carter near Whitehorse, NWT