Earth Weather / Space Weather

Live long and prosper, Curiosity!

By: Susie77, 1:39 AM GMT on November 27, 2011

Mars Rover Curiosity Takes Off

Nov. 26, 2011:  NASA began a historic voyage to
Mars with the Nov. 26 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, which
carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral
Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket occurred at 10:02 a.m. EST
(7:02 a.m. PST).

"We are very excited about sending the world's most advanced
scientific laboratory to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
"MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while
it advances science, we'll be working on the capabilities for a human
mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we've never
New Mars Rover Successfully Launches (splash)
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars
Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, including the new rover, Curiosity,
lifted off on time on the first opportunity at 10:02 a.m. EST on Nov.

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a
sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain
inside Gale Crater
on Aug. 6, 2012. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing,
the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered
conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical
ingredients for life.

"The launch vehicle has given us a great injection into our
trajectory, and we're on our way to Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory
Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, Calif. "The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable
and power positive."

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and
then, with a second burst from the vehicle's upper stage, pushed it out
of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey
to Mars.

"Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two
weeks," Theisinger said. "We'll do instrument checkouts in the next
several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on
Mars and operations on the surface."
New Mars Rover Successfully Launches (Curiosity, 200px)
An artist's concept of NASA's biggest-ever Mars rover Curiosity examining a rock on the Red Planet. [larger image].

Curiosity's ambitious science goals are among the mission's many
differences from earlier Mars rovers. It will use a drill and scoop at
the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock
interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical
laboratory instruments inside the rover. Curiosity carries 10 science
instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the
science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a
laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks
from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive
identification of minerals in powdered samples.

To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long
and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. Because of its one-ton
mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing
as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory
spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover
on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.

The mission's landing site offers Curiosity access for driving to
layers of the mountain inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have
identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a
wet history.

Precision landing maneuvers as the spacecraft flies through the
Martian atmosphere before opening its parachute make Gale a safe target
for the first time. This innovation shrinks the target area to less than
one-fourth the size of earlier Mars landing targets. Without it, rough
terrain at the edges of Curiosity's target would make the site
unacceptably hazardous.

The innovations for landing a heavier spacecraft with greater
precision are steps in technology development for human Mars missions.
In addition, Curiosity carries an instrument for monitoring the natural
radiation environment on Mars, important information for designing human
Mars missions that protect astronauts' health.

Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA


Alien Lightning Sprites

By: Susie77, 11:55 PM GMT on November 21, 2011

Lightning sprites on Jupiter, Saturn and Venus


Lightning sprites on alien worlds. Cool!

Only a few decades ago, scientists discovered the existence of
lightning “sprites” 30 to 55 miles (50 to 90 kilometers) above the
surface of the Earth. The sprites are offshoots of electrical
discharges created during lightning storms. They’re a valuable window
into the composition of our world’s atmosphere. Today, researchers at
Tel Aviv University (TAU) said that sprites are not a phenomenon
specific to our planet Earth. They’re also found on Jupiter, Saturn and

Lightning sprite with streamers. Image Credit: American Friends of Tel Aviv University (AFTAU)
Jupiter and Saturn experience lightning storms with flashes 1,000 or
more times more powerful than those on Earth, according to Ph.D. student
Daria Dubrovin. With her supervisors Prof. Colin Price of TAU’s
Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences and Prof. Yoav Yair of
the Open University of Israel, and collaborators Prof. Ute Ebert and Dr.
Sander Nijdam from the Eindhoven Technical University in Holland,
Dubrovin has re-created these planetary atmospheres in the lab to study
the presence of sprites in space.
The color of these bursts of electricity indicate what kinds of
molecules are present and may explain the presence of exotic compounds,
while providing insight into the conductivity of distant planets’
atmospheres. This research, which was presented in October at the
European Planetary Science Congress in France, could lead to a new
understanding of electrical and chemical processes on Jupiter, Saturn,
and Venus.
Image Credit: Abestrobi
Lightning sprites and extraterrestrial life?
Though a little-known atmospheric phenomenon, sprites are quite
common on Earth, says Dubrovin. Because they occur in the mesosphere — a
layer of the atmosphere that is not regularly observed by satellites
and too high to be reached by atmospheric balloons — the discovery of
these electric discharges – which are red in color and last only a few
tens of milliseconds – was a stroke of luck.
Lightning, as a generator of organic molecules, is credited for
contributing to the “primordial soup” that, according to current
theories, led to the emergence of life on Earth. Researchers are keen to
know more about the possibility of lightning on other planets, explains
Dubrovin, not only because it impacts the technological equipment used
by space programs, but because it is another clue that could indicate
the presence of extraterrestrial life.
Image Credit: Walter Lyons, FMA Research, Fort Collins, Colorado
To test for the viability of extraterrestrial sprites, Dubrovin and
her fellow researchers re-created the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn,
and Venus in small containers. A circuit that creates strong
short-voltage pulses produced a discharge that mimics natural sprites.
Images of these discharges, known as streamers, were taken by a fast and
sensitive camera, then analyzed. Quantifying factors such as
brightness, color, size, radius, and speed could help researchers
measure how powerful extraterrestrial lightning actually is, she notes.
Smiling, Dubrovin said:

We make sprites-in-a-bottle.

Will Cassini spacecraft study sprites in Saturn’s atmosphere?
Dubrovin believes that the team’s predictions could convince
scientists operating the Cassini spacecraft — now orbiting Saturn as
part of an ESA/NASA mission — to point their cameras in a new direction.
Currently, she says, there is a huge lightning storm occurring on
Saturn producing at least 100 lightning discharges per second — a rare
event that happens approximately once in a decade. Above the
lightning-producing clouds in Jupiter’s and Saturn’s atmosphere,
Dubrovin explains, lies a layer of clouds which partly obscure the light
from the flashes. If researchers were able to obtain an image of the
higher-up sprites from the Cassini craft, it would enable them to gain
more information about the storm below.



By: Susie77, 1:52 PM GMT on November 20, 2011

It's one of the biggest
things in the entire solar system. A dark filament
of magnetism measuring more than 700,000 km from
end to end is sprawled diagonally across the face
of the sun. Amateur astronomer Theo Ramakers photographed
the structure yesterday from Social Circle, Georgia:

"What a beautiful view,"
says Ramakers. "Wow--would I like to image
this if/when it collapses! Can’t wait to see what
tomorrow will bring."
Indeed, the future could bring some
action. Filaments like these have a habit of collapsing,
and when they fall to the stellar surface the impact
can trigger a Hyder
. Readers with solar
are encouraged to monitor developments.
more images: from
John Stetson
of Falmouth, Maine; from
Craig & Tammy Temple
of Hendersonville,
Tennessee; from
of Chateaugay, France


Weird Stars

By: Susie77, 3:07 AM GMT on November 08, 2011

Stellar Extremophiles

Nov. 7, 2011:
Back in the 1970s, biologists were amazed to discover a form of life
they never expected.  Tiny microorganisms with ancient DNA were living
in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.  Instead of dissolving
in the boiling waters, the microbes were thriving, ringing the springs
with vibrant color.

Scientists coined the term extremophile, which means
"extreme-loving", to describe the creatures--and the hunt was on for
more.  Soon, extremophiles were found living in deep Antarctic ice, the
cores of nuclear reactors, and other unexpected places.  Biology hasn't
been the same since.

Could astronomy be on the verge of a similar transformation?

Researchers using a NASA space telescope named GALEX have discovered a new kind of extremophile: extreme-loving stars.

"We’re finding stars in extreme galactic environments where star
formation isn't supposed to happen," explains GALEX project scientist
Susan Neff of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “This is a very
surprising development."
Stellar Extremophiles (splash, 558px)
This composite (radio+UV) image shows long octopus-like arms of
star formation stretching far away from the main disk of spiral galaxy
M83. [more] [video]

GALEX, which stands for “Galaxy Evolution Explorer,” is an
ultraviolet space telescope with a special ability: It is
super-sensitive to the kind of UV rays emitted by the youngest stars. 
This means the observatory can detect stars being born at very great
distances from Earth, more than halfway across the Universe.  The
observatory was launched in 2003 on a mission to study how galaxies
change and evolve as new stars coalesce inside them.

GALEX accomplished that mission—and more.

"In some GALEX images, we see stars forming outside of
galaxiesin places where we thought the gas density would be too low for
star birth to occur," says GALEX team member Don Neil of Caltech. 

Stars are born when interstellar clouds of gas collapse and
contract under the pull of their own gravity.  If a cloud gets dense and
hot enough as it collapses, nuclear fusion will kick in and—voila!--a
star is born. 

The spiral arms of the Milky Way are a "goldilocks zone" for this
process.  "Here in the Milky Way we have plenty of gas.  It’s a cozy
place for stars to form," says Neil.

But when GALEX looks at other more distant spiral galaxies, it sees stars forming far outside the gassy spiral disk.  

"I was dumbfounded," he says. "These stars are truly 'living on the edge. '"
Draconids (signup)
Spirals aren’t the only galaxies with stellar extremophiles. The observatory has also found stars being born

--in elliptical and irregular galaxies thought to be gas-poor (e.g., 1, 2)

--in the gaseous debris of colliding galaxies (1, 2)

--in vast "comet-like" tails that trail behind some fast-moving galaxies (1, 2)

--in cold primordial gas clouds, which are small and barely massive enough to hang together

So much for the Goldilocks Zone.  According to GALEX, stellar
extremophiles populate just about every nook and cranny of the cosmos
where a wisp of gas can get together to make a new sun.

“This could be telling us something profound about the
star-forming process,” says Neff.  “There could be ways to make stars in
extreme environments that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Will extremophiles transform astronomy as they did biology?  It’s
too soon to say, insist the researchers. But GALEX has definitely given
them something to think about.

Author:Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA


Ginormous Sun Spot and a Glowing Sky

By: Susie77, 12:39 PM GMT on November 03, 2011


One of the largest sunspots
in years is rotating over the sun's northeastern
limb. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory took this
picture of AR1339 during the early hours of Nov.

Measuring some 40,000 km wide and
at least twice that in length, the sprawling sunspot
group is an easy target for backyard solar
. Two or three of the sunspot's dark
cores are wider than Earth itself.
Naturally, such a large sunspot has
potential for strong flares. NOAA forecasters estimate
a 50% chance of M-class
solar flares during the next 24 hours. One such
eruption has already occured: An M4-flare at 2200
UT on Nov. 2nd produced a bright flash of extreme
UV radiation (SDO
) and hurled a coronal mass ejection (CME)
into space. The CME is not heading our way. Future
CMEs could have greater effect as AR1339 turns toward
Earth in the days ahead.
Solar flare alerts:

November began with a geomagnetic
storm. A shock wave in the solar wind swept past
Earth during the early hours of Nov 1st, sparking
strong magnetic disturbances around the Arctic Circle.
Paul Beebe sends this report from Upsala, Canada:
"I awoke around 6:30 am and saw auroras out
my bedroom window. They were dancing like green
flames in the northern sky, with the occasional
spike of pink or red barely visible." He quickly
dressed and headed to the shores of nearby Lang
Lake for this shot:

More auroras are possible on Nov.
4th. A coronal mass ejection (CME) left the sun
on Oct. 31st when a solar filament erupted; the
cloud could deliver a glancing blow to Earth's magnetic
field this Thursday.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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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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