Earth Weather / Space Weather

Saturn's Aurora

By: Susie77, 4:08 PM GMT on November 27, 2009


Cassini Captures Ghostly Dance of Saturn's Northern Lights

PASADENA, Calif. – In the first video showing the auroras above the northern latitudes of Saturn, Cassini has spotted the tallest known "northern lights" in the solar system, flickering in shape and brightness high above the ringed planet.

The new video reveals changes in Saturn's aurora every few minutes, in high resolution, with three dimensions. The images show a previously unseen vertical profile to the auroras, which ripple in the video like tall curtains. These curtains reach more than 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) above the edge of the planet's northern hemisphere.

The new video and still images are online at: , and .

Auroras occur on Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and a few other planets, and the new images will help scientists better understand how they are generated.

"The auroras have put on a dazzling show, shape-shifting rapidly and exposing curtains that we suspected were there, but hadn't seen on Saturn before," said Andrew Ingersoll of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who is a member of the Cassini imaging team that processed the new video. "Seeing these things on another planet helps us understand them a little better when we see them on Earth."

Auroras appear mostly in the high latitudes near a planet's magnetic poles. When charged particles from the magnetosphere -- the magnetic bubble surrounding a planet -- plunge into the planet's upper atmosphere, they cause the atmosphere to glow. The curtain shapes show the paths that these charged particles take as they flow along the lines of the magnetic field between the magnetosphere and the uppermost part of the atmosphere.

The height of the curtains on Saturn exposes a key difference between Saturn's atmosphere and our own, Ingersoll said. While Earth's atmosphere has a lot of oxygen and nitrogen, Saturn's atmosphere is composed primarily of hydrogen. Because hydrogen is very light, the atmosphere and auroras reach far out from Saturn. Earth's auroras tend to flare only about 100 to 500 kilometers (60 to 300 miles) above the surface.

The speed of the auroral changes in the video is comparable to some of those on Earth, but scientists are still working to understand the processes that produce these rapid changes. The height will also help them learn how much energy is required to light up auroras.

"I was wowed when I saw these images and the curtain," said Tamas Gombosi of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who chairs Cassini's magnetosphere and plasma science working group. "Put this together with the other data Cassini has collected on the auroras so far, and you really get a new science."

Ultraviolet and infrared instruments on Cassini have captured images of and data from Saturn's auroras before, but in these latest images, Cassini's narrow-angle camera was able to capture the northern lights in the visible part of the light spectrum, in higher resolution. The movie was assembled from nearly 500 still pictures spanning 81 hours between Oct. 5 and Oct. 8, 2009. Each picture had an exposure time of two or three minutes. The camera shot pictures from the night side of Saturn.

The images were originally obtained in black and white, and the imaging team highlighted the auroras in false-color orange. The oxygen and nitrogen in Earth's upper atmosphere contribute to the colorful flashes of green, red and even purple in our auroras. But scientists are still working to determine the true color of the auroras at Saturn, whose atmosphere lacks those chemicals.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Joe Mason 720-974-5859
Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.


Thanksgiving Sky Treat!!

By: Susie77, 11:42 PM GMT on November 25, 2009

If you are blessed with clear skies tomorrow night, you might enjoy this (instead of football)....

Space Weather News for Nov. 25, 2009

DOUBLE FLYBY ALERT: Space shuttle Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) this morning at 4:53 am EST. Their separation sets the stage for double flybys of many towns and cities on Wednesday evening, Nov. 25th, when Atlantis and the ISS will soar through the night sky side by side--a fantastic sight. Atlantis is not scheduled to land until Friday morning, Nov. 27th, so the double apparitions will continue on Thursday, Nov. 26th, Thanksgiving in the United States. Check the Simple Satellite Tracker for flybys: .


Sun Tsunamis!

By: Susie77, 11:36 PM GMT on November 24, 2009


Monster Waves on the Sun are Real

November 24, 2009: Sometimes you really can believe your eyes. That's what NASA's STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) spacecraft are telling researchers about a controversial phenomenon on the sun known as the "solar tsunami."

Years ago, when solar physicists first witnessed a towering wave of hot plasma racing along the sun's surface, they doubted their senses. The scale of the thing was staggering. It rose up higher than Earth itself and rippled out from a central point in a circular pattern millions of kilometers in circumference. Skeptical observers suggested it might be a shadow of some kind—a trick of the eye—but surely not a real wave.

"Now we know," says Joe Gurman of the Solar Physics Lab at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "Solar tsunamis are real."

The twin STEREO spacecraft confirmed their reality in February 2009 when sunspot 11012 unexpectedly erupted. The blast hurled a billion-ton cloud of gas (a "CME") into space and sent a tsunami racing along the sun's surface. STEREO recorded the wave from two positions separated by 90o, giving researchers an unprecedented view of the event:

"It was definitely a wave," says Spiros Patsourakos of George Mason University, lead author of a paper reporting the finding in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "Not a wave of water," he adds, "but a giant wave of hot plasma and magnetism."

The technical name is "fast-mode magnetohydrodynamical wave"—or "MHD wave" for short. The one STEREO saw reared up about 100,000 km high, and raced outward at 250 km/s (560,000 mph) packing as much energy as 2400 megatons of TNT (1029 ergs).

Solar tsunamis were discovered back in 1997 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). In May of that year, a CME came blasting up from an active region on the sun's surface, and SOHO recorded a tsunami rippling away from the blast site.

"We wondered," recalls Gurman, "is that a wave—or just a shadow of the CME overhead?"

SOHO's single point of view was not enough to answer the question—neither for that first wave nor for many similar events recorded by SOHO in years that followed.

The question remained open until after the launch of STEREO in 2006. At the time of the February 2009 eruption, STEREO-B was directly over the blast site while STEREO-A was stationed at right angles —"perfect geometry for cracking the mystery," says co-author Angelos Vourlidas of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. (diagram)

The physical reality of the waves has been further confirmed by movies of the waves crashing into things. "We've seen the waves reflected by coronal holes (magnetic holes in the sun's atmosphere)," says Vourlidas. "And there is a wonderful movie of a solar prominence oscillating after it gets hit by a wave. We call it the 'dancing prominence.'"

Solar tsunamis pose no direct threat to Earth. Nevertheless, they are important to study. "We can use them to diagnose conditions on the sun," notes Gurman. "By watching how the waves propagate and bounce off things, we can gather information about the sun's lower atmosphere available in no other way."

"Tsunami waves can also improve our forecasting of space weather," adds Vourlidas, "Like a bull-eye, they 'mark the spot' where an eruption takes place. Pinpointing the blast site can help us anticipate when a CME or radiation storm will reach Earth."

And they're pretty entertaining, too. "The movies," he says, "are out of this world."

[See link for movies!]



By: Susie77, 5:14 PM GMT on November 24, 2009

So who's got some? Want to share? :)



By: Susie77, 12:23 AM GMT on November 19, 2009

Did anyone here see this?

Space Weather News for Nov. 18, 2009

FIREBALLS AND METEORS: As forecasters predicted, the Leonid meteor shower peaked during the late hours of Nov. 17th, favoring sky watchers in Asia with an outburst of 100+ meteors per hour. Just as the outburst was dying down, an even bigger event took place over the western USA. Something hit Earth's atmosphere and exploded with an energy equivalent of 0.5 to 1 kiloton of TNT. Witnesses in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and elsewhere say the fireball "turned night into day" and "shook the ground" when it exploded just after midnight Mountain Standard Time. Researchers who are analyzing infrasound recordings of the blast say the fireball was not a Leonid. It was probably a small asteroid, now scattered in fragments across the countryside. Efforts are underway to measure the trajectory of the asteroid and guide meteorite recovery efforts.


Water on the Moon?? YES!

By: Susie77, 11:32 PM GMT on November 13, 2009


November 13, 2009: The argument that the Moon is a dry, desolate place no longer holds water.

At a press conference today, researchers revealed preliminary data from NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, indicating that water exists in a permanently shadowed lunar crater. The discovery opens a new chapter in our understanding of the Moon.

"We are ecstatic," said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

The LCROSS spacecraft and a companion rocket stage made twin impacts in crater Cabeus near the Moon's south pole on Oct. 9th. A plume of debris traveled at a high angle beyond the rim of Cabeus and into sunlight, while an additional curtain of debris was ejected more laterally.

"Multiple lines of evidence show water was present in both the high angle vapor plume and the ejecta curtain created by the LCROSS Centaur impact," says Colaprete. "The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water."

Since the impacts, the LCROSS science team has been analyzing the huge amount of data the spacecraft collected. The team concentrated on data from the satellite's spectrometers, which provide the most definitive information about the presence of water. A spectrometer helps identify the composition of materials by examining light they emit or absorb.

The team took the known near-infrared spectral signatures of water and other materials and compared them to the impact spectra the LCROSS near infrared spectrometer collected.

see caption"We were able to match the spectra from LCROSS data only when we inserted the spectra for water," Colaprete said. "No other reasonable combination of other compounds that we tried matched the observations. The possibility of contamination from the Centaur also was ruled out."

Additional confirmation came from an emission in the ultraviolet spectrum that was attributed to hydroxyl (OH), one product from the break-up of water by sunlight.

Data from the other LCROSS instruments are being analyzed for additional clues about the state and distribution of the material at the impact site. The LCROSS science team and colleagues are poring over the data to understand the entire impact event, from flash to crater. The goal is to understand the distribution of all materials within the soil at the impact site.

"The full understanding of the LCROSS data may take some time. The data is that rich," Colaprete said. "Along with the water in Cabeus, there are hints of other intriguing substances. The permanently shadowed regions of the Moon are truly cold traps, collecting and preserving material over billions of years."

Stay tuned for updates.


Poor Stuck Spirit -- Hang on, Little Buddy, we'll save you!

By: Susie77, 7:05 PM GMT on November 12, 2009

RELEASE: 09-263


PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA will begin transmitting commands to its Mars exploration rover Spirit on Monday as part of an escape plan to free the venerable robot from its Martian sand trap.

Spirit has been lodged at a site scientists call "Troy" since April 23. Researchers expect the extraction process to be long and the outcome uncertain based on tests here on Earth this spring that simulated conditions at the Martian site.

"This is going to be a lengthy process, and there's a high probability attempts to free Spirit will not be successful," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "After the first few weeks of attempts, we're not likely to know whether Spirit will be able to free itself."

Spirit has six wheels for roving the Red Planet. The first commands will tell the rover to rotate its five working wheels forward approximately six turns. Engineers anticipate severe wheel slippage, with barely perceptible forward progress in this initial attempt. Since 2006, Spirit's right-front wheel has been inoperable, possibly
because of wear and tear on a motor as a result of the rover's longevity.

Spirit will return data the next day from its first drive attempt. The results will be assessed before engineers develop and send commands for a second attempt. Using results from previous commands, engineers plan to continue escape efforts until early 2010.

"Mobility on Mars is challenging, and whatever the outcome, lessons from the work to free Spirit will enhance our knowledge about how to analyze Martian terrain and drive future Mars rovers," McCuisition said. "Spirit has provided outstanding scientific discoveries and shown us astounding vistas during its long life on Mars, which is
more than 22 times longer than its designed life."

In the spring, Spirit was driving backward and dragging the inoperable right front wheel. While driving in April, the rover's other wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews
of possible escape strategies.

"The investigations of the rover embedding and our preparations to resume driving have been extensive and thorough," said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We've used two different test rovers
here on Earth in conditions designed to simulate as best as possible Spirit's predicament. However, Earth-based tests cannot exactly replicate the conditions at Troy."

Data show Spirit is straddling the edge of a 26-foot-wide crater that had been filled long ago with sulfate-bearing sands produced in a hot water or steam environment. The deposits in the crater formed distinct layers with different compositions and tints, and they are capped by a crusty soil. It is that soil that Spirit's wheels broke
through. The buried crater lies mainly to Spirit's left. Engineers have plotted an escape route from Troy that heads up a mild slope away from the crater.

"We'll start by steering the wheels straight and driving, though we may have to steer the wheels to the right to counter any downhill slip to the left," said Ashley Stroupe, a JPL rover driver and Spirit extraction testing coordinator. "Straight-ahead driving is intended to get the rover's center of gravity past a rock that lies underneath
Spirit. Gaining horizontal distance without losing too much vertical clearance will be a key to success. The right front wheel's inability to rotate greatly increases the challenge."

Spirit has been examining its Martian surroundings with tools on its robotic arm and its camera mast. The rover's work at Troy has augmented earlier discoveries it made indicating ancient Mars had hot springs or steam vents, possible habitats for life. If escape attempts fail, the rover's stationary location may result in new science findings.

"The soft materials churned up by Spirit's wheels have the highest sulfur content measured on Mars," said Ray Arvidson a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and deputy principal investigator for the science payloads on Spirit and Opportunity. "We're taking advantage of its fixed location to conduct detailed measurements of these interesting materials."

Spirit and its twin rover landed on Mars in January 2004. They have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor.

NASA's JPL manages the rovers for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For updates about Spirit's progress, visit:


The Leonids are Coming!

By: Susie77, 11:50 PM GMT on November 10, 2009

From: NASA

The 2009 Leonid Meteor Shower

November 10, 2009: This year's Leonid meteor shower peaks on Tuesday, Nov. 17th. If forecasters are correct, the shower should produce a mild but pretty sprinkling of meteors over North America followed by a more intense outburst over Asia. The phase of the Moon will be new, setting the stage for what could be one of the best Leonid showers in years.

"We're predicting 20 to 30 meteors per hour over the Americas, and as many as 200 to 300 per hour over Asia," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "Our forecast is in good accord with independent theoretical work by other astronomers."

Above: A Leonid meteor at dawn, photographed in 2002 by Simon Filiatrault of Quebec, Canada.

Leonids are bits of debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Every 33 years the comet visits the inner solar system and leaves a stream of dusty debris in its wake. Many of these streams have drifted across the November portion of Earth's orbit. Whenever we hit one, meteors come flying out of the constellation Leo.

"We can predict when Earth will cross a debris stream with pretty good accuracy," says Cooke. "The intensity of the display is less certain, though, because we don't know how much debris is in each stream." Caveat observer!

The first stream crossing on Nov. 17th comes around 0900 UT (4 a.m. EST, 1 a.m. PST). The debris is a diffuse mix of particles from several old streams that should produce a gentle display of two to three dozen meteors per hour over North America. Dark skies are recommended for full effect.

"A remarkable feature of this year's shower is that Leonids will appear to be shooting almost directly out of the planet Mars," notes Cooke.

It's just a coincidence. This year, Mars happens to be passing by the Leonid radiant at the time of the shower. The Red Planet is almost twice as bright as a first magnitude star, so it makes an eye-catching companion for the Leonids.

The next stream crossing straddles the hour 2100-2200 UT, shortly before dawn in Indonesia and China. At that time, Earth will pass through a pair of streams laid down by Comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1466 and 1533 AD. The double crossing could yield as many as 300 Leonids per hour.

Above: This side of Earth will be facing the Leonid debris stream at the time of the Nov. 17th outburst. Observers in India, China and Indonesia are favored with dark, pre-dawn skies. Image credit: Danielle Moser of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office.

"Even if rates are only half that number, it would still be one of the best showers of the year," says Cooke.

The Leonids are famous for storming, most recently in 1999-2002 when deep crossings of Tempel-Tuttle's debris streams produced outbursts of more than 1000 meteors per hour. The Leonids of 2009 won't be like that, but it only takes one bright Leonid streaking past Mars to make the night worthwhile.

Enjoy the show.

Updated: 12:53 PM GMT on November 11, 2009


Haven't you wondered why, too? (A tale of planetary woe)

By: Susie77, 1:05 PM GMT on November 07, 2009


A Tale of Planetary Woe

Nov. 6, 2009: Once upon a time — roughly four billion years ago — Mars was warm and wet, much like Earth. Liquid water flowed on the Martian surface in long rivers that emptied into shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Living microbes might have even arisen, some scientists believe, starting Mars down the path toward becoming a second life-filled planet next door to our own.

But that's not how things turned out.

Mars today is bitter cold and bone dry. The rivers and seas are long gone. Its atmosphere is thin and wispy, and if Martian microbes still exist, they're probably eking out a meager existence somewhere beneath the dusty Martian soil.

What happened? Why did Mars dry up and freeze over? These haunting questions have long puzzled scientists. A few years from now we might finally know the answer, thanks to a new orbiter NASA will send to Mars called MAVEN (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution).

"The goal of MAVEN is to figure out what processes were responsible for those changes in the climate," says Bruce Jakosky, Principal Investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

One way or another, scientists believe, Mars must have lost its most precious asset: its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide. CO2 in Mars's atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, just as it is in our own atmosphere. A thick blanket of CO2 and other greenhouse gases would have provided the warmer temperatures and greater atmospheric pressure required to keep liquid water from freezing solid or boiling away.

Over the last four billion years, Mars somehow lost most of that blanket. Scientists have proposed various theories for how that loss happened. Perhaps an asteroid impact blew most of the atmosphere into space in one catastrophic event. Or maybe erosion by the solar wind — a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun — could have slowly stripped the atmosphere away over eons. The planet's surface might also have absorbed the CO2 and locked it up in minerals such as carbonate.

Ultimately, nobody knows for sure where all the missing CO2 went.

MAVEN will be the first mission to Mars specifically designed to help scientists understand the ongoing escape of CO2 and other gases into space. The probe will orbit Mars for at least one Earth-year. At the elliptical orbit's low point, MAVEN will be 125 km above the surface; its high point will take it more than 6000 km out into space. This wide range of altitudes will enable MAVEN to sample Mars's atmosphere more thoroughly than ever before.

As it orbits, MAVEN's instruments will track ions and molecules in this broad cross-section of the Martian atmosphere, thoroughly documenting the flow of CO2 and other molecules into space for the first time.

Once Jakosky and his colleagues know how quickly Mars is losing CO2 right now, they can extrapolate backward in time to estimate the total amount lost to space during the last four billion years. "MAVEN will determine if [loss to space] was the most important player," Jakosky says.

But just as important as "how much?" is the question of "how?"

Conventional wisdom holds that Mars's atmosphere is vulnerable because the planet lacks a global magnetic field. Earth's magnetic field stretches far out into space and envelopes the whole planet in a protective bubble that deflects the solar wind. Mars has only regional, patchy magnetic fields that cover relatively small areas of the planet, mostly in the southern hemisphere. The rest of the atmosphere is fully exposed to the solar wind. So the loss could be caused by the slow erosion of the atmosphere in these exposed areas.

David Brain of UC Berkeley has proposed another, seemingly contrary possibility. These small magnetic fields might actually hasten the loss of Mars's atmosphere, Brain suggests.

The solar wind might buffet those magnetic field lines, occasionally pinching off a "bubble" of field lines that then drifts off into space — carrying a large chunk of the atmosphere with it. If so, having a partial magnetic field might be worse than having none at all. This possibility was described in a 2008 Science@NASA story, "Solar Wind Rips Up Martian Atmosphere."

Some evidence from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft supports Brain's theory, but decisive measurements will have to wait for MAVEN, currently scheduled to launch in 2013.

The mission will be a big step toward understanding what happened to Mars — how it ended up so cold and dry after such a warm and watery beginning. After all these years, MAVEN could write the final chapter in a haunting tale of planetary woe.


A New Look at Mercury (it has a tail!)

By: Susie77, 12:08 AM GMT on November 04, 2009

(Who knew?)


Hidden Territory on Mercury Revealed

Nov. 3, 2009: The MESSENGER spacecraft's third flyby of the planet Mercury has given scientists, for the first time, an almost complete view of the planet's surface and revealed some dramatic changes in Mercury's comet-like tail.

"The new images remind us that Mercury continues to hold surprises," says Sean Solomon, principal investigator for the mission and director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The probe flew by Mercury on Sept. 29th, executing a critical gravity assist maneuver designed to help MESSENGER enter Mercury-orbit in 2011. Despite shutting down temporarily because of a power system switchover during a solar eclipse, the spacecraft's cameras and instruments revealed 6 percent of the planet's surface never before seen at close range, including this picturesque region pocked by impact craters and molded by volcanic activity:

Above: This enhanced-color view was created with a statistical technique that highlights subtle color variations seen in the 11 filters of MESSENGER's wide-angle camera. The colors are often related to the composition of underlying material material.

The bright region in the upper-right corner of the image surrounds a suspected explosive volcanic vent. The 290-km-diameter double-ring basin near the bottom of the image has a smooth interior that may be the result of effusive volcanism.

"This double-ring basin, seen in detail for the first time, is remarkably well preserved," notes Brett Denevi, a member of the probe's imaging team and a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University. "The inner floor of this basin is even younger than the basin itself and differs in color from its surroundings. We may have found the youngest volcanic material on Mercury."

One of the spacecraft's instruments conducted its most extensive observations to date of Mercury's ultrathin atmosphere or "exosphere." Material in the exosphere comes mainly from the surface of Mercury, knocked aloft by solar radiation, solar wind bombardment and meteoroid vaporization: diagram. This wispy gaseous envelope is stretched by solar radiation pressure into a long, comet-like tail, which seems to be changing as Mercury moves around the sun.

"A striking illustration of what we call 'seasonal' effects in Mercury's exosphere is that the neutral sodium tail, so prominent in the first two flybys, is now significantly reduced in extent," says participating scientist Ron Vervack of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Above: Mercury's comet-like tail as traced by neutral sodium atoms has substantially decreased in size since MESSENGER's 2nd flyby in Oct. 2008. The two panels are extended models fit to data sampled relatively close to Mercury.

"This difference is related to expected variations in solar radiation pressure as Mercury moves in its [elliptical orbit around the sun]," adds Vervack. "Mercury's exosphere is one of the most dynamic in the solar system."

The observations also show that calcium and magnesium in the exosphere exhibit different seasonal changes than sodium--a difference that researchers do not yet fully understand. After MESSENGER enters Mercury orbit in 2011, it can make a continuous study of seasonal changes in all exospheric constituents. That will provide key information on the relative importance of the processes that generate, sustain, and modify Mercury's atmosphere.

Approximately 98 percent of Mercury's surface now has been imaged by NASA spacecraft. After MESSENGER goes into orbit, it will see the polar regions, which are the only remaining unobserved areas of the planet.

Click here for more images and data.


About Susie77

Sometimes I complain about the earthly weather, but mostly I like to post about astronomy and space events. Hope you enjoy the articles.

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