Article and photo courtesy of Live Science
Astronaut Snaps Beautiful Photo of 'Night-Shining Clouds'
Douglas Main, LiveScience Contributor
Date: 22 January 2013 Time: 03:38 PM ET
Even when night blankets the land, some clouds high in the atmosphere may still glow, as seen in this photograph taken by a crewmember aboard the International Space Station on Jan. 5, looking down over French Polynesia in the South Pacific.
Known as polar mesospheric or noctilucent clouds, these formations have been spotted from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres on ground, in airplanes and on spacecraft, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.
A photograph of night-shining clouds taken with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 400 millimeter lens by an astronaut aboard the ISS on January 5, 2013.
CREDIT: NASA Earth Observatory
The clouds, also called "night-shining" clouds, form about 47 to 53 miles (76 to 85 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, according to the Earth Observatory. They form near the boundary between two layers of the atmosphere called the mesosphere and the thermosphere, in a region called the mesopause.
The combination of low temperatures at this height and the cloud's position relative to the sun explains the glowing. At these altitudes, temperatures can drop below minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 130 degrees Celsius). Any water present in the atmosphere freezes into ice crystals. These sky-high crystals may then be illuminated by the sun, which has set from the point of view of people on the ground but can still backlight the clouds, the Earth Observatory reports.
The clouds are sensitive to changes in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, as well as high-altitude temperatures. They may also be getting brighter as a result of climate change, according to a recent study, which suggests that the upper atmosphere is more humid, resulting in more and brighter clouds.
Such clouds are most often seen in the far northern and southern latitudes (above 50 degrees) in the summer when, counter-intuitively, the mesosphere is coldest.
The orange band below the clouds in the astronaut's photo is the atmospheric layer known as the stratosphere, according to the Earth Observatory. Below the stratosphere is the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere nearest the ground, in which the bulk of Earth's weather occurs.
In little more than a month, Comet PanSTARRS will cross the orbit of Mercury and probably brighten to naked-eye visibility as it absorbs the heat of the nearby sun. Sky watchers around the world will be looking for it in the sunset skies of early March, when it passes closest to the sun and to Earth. Until then a telescope is required; here is the view last night through a 0.3-meter-diameter reflector in Argentina:
A team of astronomers led by Martin Masek took the picture using the remotely-controlled F(/Ph)otometric Robotic Atmospheric Monitor--"FRAM" for short. "The stars are trailed in this 9x120s exposure, which tracked the comet," explains Masel.
Currently, the comet ranks about 8th magnitude, dimmer than the human eye can see, but it could brighten 100-fold on March 10th when it makes its closest approach to the sun (0.3 AU). The latest curves suggest that PanSTARRS will emerge glowing about as brightly as a 3rd magnitude star, similar to the stars in the Big Dipper.
There might, however, be surprises in store. Comet PanSTARRS has never been to inner solar system before. It is falling in from the Oort cloud, a great swarm of comets beyond Neptune and Pluto unaltered by the warmth of the sun. When Comet PanSTARRS dips it toe inside the orbit of Mercury for the first time, almost anything could happen ranging from an anticlimatic "bake-out" to a spectacular disruption. Stay tuned for updates.
Comet of the Century?
[I don't know about you, but I am stoked about this!!]
Courtesy of Science @ NASA
Comet of the Century?
Jan. 18, 2013: Out near the orbit of Jupiter, a faint speck of light is moving through the black of space. At first glance it doesn't look like much, no brighter than a thousand distant stars speckling the velvet sky behind it; indeed, it takes a big telescope make out that it is a comet.
But what a comet it could turn out to be….
Later this year, “Comet ISON” could blossom into a striking naked eye object visible even in broad daylight.
“Comet ISON is a sungrazer,” explains Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab. “The orbit of the comet will bring it very close to the sun, which we know can be a spectacular thing.”
A new ScienceCast video explores what could happen to Comet ISON as it approaches the sun in Nov. 2013. Possibilities range from "Comet of the Century" to "disintegrated dud." Play it
Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok found the comet in Sept. 2012. It bears the name of their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network.
As 2013 unfolds, the comet is still very far away—near the orbit of Jupiter. That’s why it looks like a speck. “But for an object at such extreme distance, it is actually very bright," says Battams. The comet’s glow suggests that is spewing gas and dust from a fairly large nucleus—“in the 1 to 10 km range,” estimates Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory.
On Nov. 28, 2013, this “dirty snowball” will fly through the sun's atmosphere little more than a million km from the stellar surface. If the comet survives--a big IF--it could emerge glowing as brightly as the Moon, briefly visible near the sun in broad daylight. The comet's dusty tail stretching into the night sky could create a worldwide sensation.
Some reporters have started calling ISON the "Comet of the Century," but Don Yeomans of NASA Near-Earth Object Program thinks that's premature.
"I'm old enough to remember the last 'Comet of the Century'," he says. In 1973, a distant comet named Kohoutek looked like it would put on a great show, much like ISON. The actual apparition was such a let-down that Johnny Carson made jokes about it on the Tonight Show. “It fizzled,” says Yeomans. “Comets are notoriously unpredictable.”
"Comet ISON has the potential to live up to the hype, but it also has the potential to do nothing," agrees Battams.
One hazard is the sun. Tidal forces and solar radiation have been known to destroy comets. A recent example is Comet Elenin, which broke apart and dissipated in 2011 as it approached the sun. Elenin, however, was a much smaller comet.
Click to view an interactive 3D orbit diagram of Comet ISON, courtesy of the JPL Near-Earth Object Program
A better comparison, perhaps, is Comet Lovejoy, which flew through the sun's atmosphere in 2011. Lovejoy emerged intact and wowed observers with a garish tail for weeks.
"Comet ISON is probably at least twice as big as Comet Lovejoy and will pass a bit farther from the sun’s surface" notes Knight. “This would seem to favor Comet ISON surviving and ultimately putting on a good show.
One of the most exciting possibilities would be a partial break-up. "If Comet ISON splits, it might appear as a 'string of pearls' when viewed through a telescope," speculates Battams. “It might even resemble the famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that hit Jupiter in 1994.”
A break-up would pose no threat to Earth, assures Yeomans. "Comet ISON is not on a collision course. If it breaks up, the fragments would continue along the same safe trajectory as the original comet."
Whatever happens, northern sky watchers will get a good view. For months after it swings by the sun, Comet ISON will be well placed for observers in the northern hemisphere. It will pass almost directly over the North Pole, making it a circumpolar object visible all night long.
Will Comet ISON fizzle ... or sizzle? Stay tuned to Science@NASA for updates.
Solar Variability and Terrestrial Climate
[Blogger's note: I don't usually share technical articles such as this one but I thought some of the sci folks here would enjoy reading it.]
Source: Science @ NASA
Solar Variability and Terrestrial Climate
Jan. 8, 2013: In the galactic scheme of things, the Sun is a remarkably constant star. While some stars exhibit dramatic pulsations, wildly yo-yoing in size and brightness, and sometimes even exploding, the luminosity of our own sun varies a measly 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle.
There is, however, a dawning realization among researchers that even these apparently tiny variations can have a significant effect on terrestrial climate. A new report issued by the National Research Council (NRC), "The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth's Climate," lays out some of the surprisingly complex ways that solar activity can make itself felt on our planet.
These six extreme UV images of the sun, taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, track the rising level of solar activity as the sun ascends toward the peak of the latest 11-year sunspot cycle. More
Understanding the sun-climate connection requires a breadth of expertise in fields such as plasma physics, solar activity, atmospheric chemistry and fluid dynamics, energetic particle physics, and even terrestrial history. No single researcher has the full range of knowledge required to solve the problem. To make progress, the NRC had to assemble dozens of experts from many fields at a single workshop. The report summarizes their combined efforts to frame the problem in a truly multi-disciplinary context.
One of the participants, Greg Kopp of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, pointed out that while the variations in luminosity over the 11-year solar cycle amount to only a tenth of a percent of the sun's total output, such a small fraction is still important. "Even typical short term variations of 0.1% in incident irradiance exceed all other energy sources (such as natural radioactivity in Earth's core) combined," he says.
Of particular importance is the sun's extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation, which peaks during the years around solar maximum. Within the relatively narrow band of EUV wavelengths, the sun’s output varies not by a minuscule 0.1%, but by whopping factors of 10 or more. This can strongly affect the chemistry and thermal structure of the upper atmosphere.
Space-borne measurements of the total solar irradiance (TSI) show ~0.1 percent variations with solar activity on 11-year and shorter timescales. These data have been corrected for calibration offsets between the various instruments used to measure TSI. SOURCE: Courtesy of Greg Kopp, University of Colorado.
Several researchers discussed how changes in the upper atmosphere can trickle down to Earth's surface. There are many "top-down" pathways for the sun's influence. For instance, Charles Jackman of the Goddard Space Flight Center described how nitrogen oxides (NOx) created by solar energetic particles and cosmic rays in the stratosphere could reduce ozone levels by a few percent. Because ozone absorbs UV radiation, less ozone means that more UV rays from the sun would reach Earth's surface.
Isaac Held of NOAA took this one step further. He described how loss of ozone in the stratosphere could alter the dynamics of the atmosphere below it. "The cooling of the polar stratosphere associated with loss of ozone increases the horizontal temperature gradient near the tropopause,” he explains. “This alters the flux of angular momentum by mid-latitude eddies. [Angular momentum is important because] the angular momentum budget of the troposphere controls the surface westerlies." In other words, solar activity felt in the upper atmosphere can, through a complicated series of influences, push surface storm tracks off course.
How incoming galactic cosmic rays and solar protons penetrate the atmosphere. SOURCE: C. Jackman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “The Impact of Energetic Particle Precipitation on the Atmosphere,” presentation to the Workshop on the Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate, September 9, 2011.
Many of the mechanisms proposed at the workshop had a Rube Goldberg-like quality. They relied on multi-step interactions between multiple layers of atmosphere and ocean, some relying on chemistry to get their work done, others leaning on thermodynamics or fluid physics. But just because something is complicated doesn't mean it's not real.
Indeed, Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) presented persuasive evidence that solar variability is leaving an imprint on climate, especially in the Pacific. According to the report, when researchers look at sea surface temperature data during sunspot peak years, the tropical Pacific shows a pronounced La Nina-like pattern, with a cooling of almost 1o C in the equatorial eastern Pacific. In addition, "there are signs of enhanced precipitation in the Pacific ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone ) and SPCZ (South Pacific Convergence Zone) as well as above-normal sea-level pressure in the mid-latitude North and South Pacific," correlated with peaks in the sunspot cycle.
The solar cycle signals are so strong in the Pacific, that Meehl and colleagues have begun to wonder if something in the Pacific climate system is acting to amplify them. "One of the mysteries regarding Earth's climate system ... is how the relatively small fluctuations of the 11-year solar cycle can produce the magnitude of the observed climate signals in the tropical Pacific." Using supercomputer models of climate, they show that not only "top-down" but also "bottom-up" mechanisms involving atmosphere-ocean interactions are required to amplify solar forcing at the surface of the Pacific.
Composite averages for December-January-February for peak solar years. SOURCE: G.A. Meehl, J.M. Arblaster, K. Matthes, F. Sassi, and H. van Loon, Amplifying the Pacific climate system response to a small 11 year solar cycle forcing, Science 325:1114-1118, 2009; reprinted with permission from AAAS.
In recent years, researchers have considered the possibility that the sun plays a role in global warming. After all, the sun is the main source of heat for our planet. The NRC report suggests, however, that the influence of solar variability is more regional than global. The Pacific region is only one example.
Caspar Amman of NCAR noted in the report that "When Earth's radiative balance is altered, as in the case of a change in solar cycle forcing, not all locations are affected equally. The equatorial central Pacific is generally cooler, the runoff from rivers in Peru is reduced, and drier conditions affect the western USA."
Raymond Bradley of UMass, who has studied historical records of solar activity imprinted by radioisotopes in tree rings and ice cores, says that regional rainfall seems to be more affected than temperature. "If there is indeed a solar effect on climate, it is manifested by changes in general circulation rather than in a direct temperature signal." This fits in with the conclusion of the IPCC and previous NRC reports that solar variability is NOT the cause of global warming over the last 50 years.
Much has been made of the probable connection between the Maunder Minimum, a 70-year deficit of sunspots in the late 17th-early 18th century, and the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, during which Europe and North America were subjected to bitterly cold winters. The mechanism for that regional cooling could have been a drop in the sun’s EUV output; this is, however, speculative.
The yearly averaged sunspot number for a period of 400 years (1610-2010). SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
Dan Lubin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography pointed out the value of looking at sun-like stars elsewhere in the Milky Way to determine the frequency of similar grand minima. “Early estimates of grand minimum frequency in solar-type stars ranged from 10% to 30%, implying the sun’s influence could be overpowering. More recent studies using data from Hipparcos (a European Space Agency astrometry satellite) and properly accounting for the metallicity of the stars, place the estimate in the range of less than 3%.” This is not a large number, but it is significant.
Indeed, the sun could be on the threshold of a mini-Maunder event right now. Ongoing Solar Cycle 24 is the weakest in more than 50 years. Moreover, there is (controversial) evidence of a long-term weakening trend in the magnetic field strength of sunspots. Matt Penn and William Livingston of the National Solar Observatory predict that by the time Solar Cycle 25 arrives, magnetic fields on the sun will be so weak that few if any sunspots will be formed. Independent lines of research involving helioseismology and surface polar fields tend to support their conclusion. (Note: Penn and Livingston were not participants at the NRC workshop.)
“If the sun really is entering an unfamiliar phase of the solar cycle, then we must redouble our efforts to understand the sun-climate link,” notes Lika Guhathakurta of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, which helped fund the NRC study. “The report offers some good ideas for how to get started.”
In a concluding panel discussion, the researchers identified a number of possible next steps. Foremost among them was the deployment of a radiometric imager. Devices currently used to measure total solar irradiance (TSI) reduce the entire sun to a single number: the total luminosity summed over all latitudes, longitudes, and wavelengths. This integrated value becomes a solitary point in a time series tracking the sun’s output.
In fact, as Peter Foukal of Heliophysics, Inc., pointed out, the situation is more complex. The sun is not a featureless ball of uniform luminosity. Instead, the solar disk is dotted by the dark cores of sunspots and splashed with bright magnetic froth known as faculae. Radiometric imaging would, essentially, map the surface of the sun and reveal the contributions of each to the sun’s luminosity. Of particular interest are the faculae. While dark sunspots tend to vanish during solar minima, the bright faculae do not. This may be why paleoclimate records of sun-sensitive isotopes C-14 and Be-10 show a faint 11-year cycle at work even during the Maunder Minimum. A radiometric imager, deployed on some future space observatory, would allow researchers to develop the understanding they need to project the sun-climate link into a future of prolonged spotlessness.
Some attendees stressed the need to put sun-climate data in standard formats and make them widely available for multidisciplinary study. Because the mechanisms for the sun’s influence on climate are complicated, researchers from many fields will have to work together to successfully model them and compare competing results. Continued and improved collaboration between NASA, NOAA and the NSF are keys to this process.
Hal Maring, a climate scientist at NASA headquarters who has studied the report, notes that “lots of interesting possibilities were suggested by the panelists. However, few, if any, have been quantified to the point that we can definitively assess their impact on climate.” Hardening the possibilities into concrete, physically-complete models is a key challenge for the researchers.
Finally, many participants noted the difficulty in deciphering the sun-climate link from paleoclimate records such as tree rings and ice cores. Variations in Earth’s magnetic field and atmospheric circulation can affect the deposition of radioisotopes far more than actual solar activity. A better long-term record of the sun’s irradiance might be encoded in the rocks and sediments of the Moon or Mars. Studying other worlds might hold the key to our own.
The full report, “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate,” is available from the National Academies Press at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13519.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips |Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
First Meteor Shower of 2013
Courtesy Space dot com
One of the best displays of "shooting stars" will peak overnight tonight and early Thursday morning (Jan. 3), but unfortunately will run into some stiff competition this year from a bright moon.
The celestial fireworks display is the Quadrantid meteor shower (pronounced KWA-dran-tid), which kicks off the annual meteor shower schedule every January.To paraphrase Forrest Gump: The Quadrantids are like opening up a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get! Indeed, the "Quads" are notoriously unpredictable.
This year, the meteor shower is peaking while the moon is in its bright gibbous phase, just days after the recent full moon on Dec. 28, which may interfere with the cosmic light show.
The Quadrantids provides one of the most intense annual meteor showers, with a brief, sharp maximum lasting but a few hours. Adolphe Quetelet of Brussels Observatory discovered the shower in the 1830s, and shortly afterward it was noted by several other astronomers in Europeand America.
The meteors are named after the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural or Wall Quadrant (an astronomical instrument), depicted in some 19th-century star atlases roughly midway between the end of the Handle of the Big Dipper and the quadrilateral of stars marking the head of the constellation Draco. (The International Astronomical Union phased out Quadrans Muralis in 1922.)
NASA will provide a live webcast of the 2013 Quadrantid meteor shower each night this week through Friday (Jan. 4). You can follow the meteor shower on SPACE.com here courtesy of the NASA feed.