Attention Northern Hemisphere Sky Watchers

This is not a warning, hysterical plea to take cover or recruiting post for the tin foil hat club – simply a heads up for Northern hemisphere sky watchers. Sunspot AR1865 sent an M1 class flare our way, it should reach earth’s magnetic field this evening. Not powerful enough to cause a bad day – even though it was earth directed – the magic is expected to unfold in spectacular auroras.

Those who have witnessed Aurora’s spell understand her soul restoring powers. Those who haven’t can only hope that one day she will allow you to witness her dance across the northern sky. If you happen to find yourself in a dark place, away from city lights; gaze upwards tonight – if you’re lucky, Aurora will dance for you.

NASA – AR1865

Solar Pole Flip

It appears our sun is about to flip poles. I was stunned to learn this happens every 11 years; or at least that seems to be the pattern since the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford started paying attention in 1976. The sun’s magnetic influence is called the heliosphere, reaching outwards for billions of kilometres , directly impacting space weather in every corner of our galaxy.

The “current sheet” radiates outwards from the equator of the sun. Slow rotation of the sun’s magnetic field produces an electrical current, when the sun’s inner core tidies itself up, reorganizing the closets, a pole shift takes place making the current sheet “wavy”. As Earth passes in and out of this wavy charge, space weather can be a little bonkers.

Hardly a prediction of catastrophe, solar pole reversal is a normal part of the solar cycle. My only wish is for people to start paying attention to the sky. As I write Perseids blaze across the night sky, solar wind rages at 460 Km/second – down from the blast of solar wind striking earth yesterday, responsible for the geomagnetic storm igniting auroras. Asteroid 2013PJ10 just passed earth, a mere Lunar Distance away; at just over 50 metres, capable of wiping out an entire city.

A little cosmic pondering is good for the soul; it helps put things in perspective.

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.

80/60 With Another X-Class for Show

AR1748 is one pesky sunspot; still beating its chest, and threatening to show us who’s boss. With odds of eruptions now up to 80% for M-class and 60% for X in the next 24 hours – 1748 unleashed another X class flare today – in case the three X flares of 1.7, 2.8, and 3.2 the previous day hadn’t made us stand up and take notice. As AR1748 turns towards earth, today’s X-1 is expected to deliver a little slap – most likely in the form of geo-magnetic disturbances responsible for crazy beautiful auroras. Ar1748 has produced more X-class flares in the last few days than all other sunspots this year combined.

NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory – photo of AR 1748 taken on May 16

Dust Off Your Tin Foil Hat It’s Sunspot Time

I’ve been a space weather nerd for a while and have never seen an 80% chance of M-class and 40% chance of X-class flares in the next 24 hours. Our sun is flexing muscle with the most intense solar activity this year. Sunspot AR 1748 let loose significant X class eruptions of 1.7, 2.8, and 3.2 in the last 24 hours. Take it from me – this is crazy. The good news is none were “earth directed”, no incoming CME (coronal mass ejection) is anticipated for now. The bad news – while researching when 1748 will face earth I stumbled upon a wordpress blog proclaiming it the beginning of the “rapture”. My decision to retreat, despite every fibre in my being screaming “post a comment” – left me shaking, incensed, reaching for a cocktail, and ultimately validated in my AR1748 raised eyebrow. When all is said and done – not only have I never seen such crazy solar activity in a short period of time, I’ve never seen it attributed to the rapture. All the affirmation I need to know I’m not pondering fairy dust. FYI -AR1748 will be earth directed in a few days.

Bookmark this link to spaceweather, start paying attention to solar reports, and send your tin foil hats to those anticipating the “rapture”, just be sure to tuck a little tin foil into that emergency kit at the top of your “to do” list.

Circular CME

AR 1730 and 1731

I wouldn’t be a particularly responsible space weather geek if I neglected to report on uppity sunspots. Sunspots AR 1730 and 1731 are getting cranky; currently a 40% chance of M-class and 5% chance of X-class flares in the next 24 hours. Ho hum you say? Most likely the case – but never fear, I’m on the job and will let you know if any spectacular eruptions take place.

I just heard from my sister in Saskatchewan; feeling green with envy as she’s sitting on her front steps watching the Northern Lights dance. Auroras are a magical gift – they find you, wrap their arms around you, and feed your soul. Argh – so jealous.

Solar eruption on the far-side of the sun – courtesy NASA

C2013 A1 -AKA – Siding Spring

Comet C2013 A1 was discovered on January 3, 2013 by Robert McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory. Believed to have been thrown from the Oort cloud; this one is poised to give Mars a little trouble. On October 29, 2014 estimates place it within 37,000 Km. from the surface of Mars.

A lot can happen to this projection in the next year. This isn’t a single asteroid, rather a massive comet with a nucleus estimated anywhere from 15 to 50 Km, and a tail up to 100,000 Km. This tail isn’t just along for the ride; it’s made up of smaller rubble and frozen gasses – often with a mind of their own. C2013 A1 is passing close enough to the Sun at the moment to melt some of these frozen gasses, sending them hurtling into space. Often this action is enough to change the course of a comet, though best guesses  are placing money on a close call rather than a direct hit.

Mars may be spared an impact estimated at 25 million times more powerful than a nuclear bomb – it has no chance of escaping the massive tail. Without question it will be spanked by unknown quantities of space junk.

There is no chance that Earth will be in harms way. At least not this time around.

There's a chance, albeit slim, that a comet upwards of 50km wide could slam into Mars in 2014.

AFP/Getty ImagesThere’s a chance, albeit slim, that a comet upwards of 50km wide could slam into Mars in 2014.