Aurora Alert: Powerful Solar Flare This Weekend Could Spark Show Tomorrow

If you sit at a fairly high latitude, you may want to keep an eye out your window Tuesday (April 1) and Wednesday. A powerful X-1 class flare erupted from the sun on Saturday (March 29), sparking an active space weather forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The solar flare erupted from sunspot AR2017 and happened to be aimed at the right direction to bring material to Earth. The associated coronal mass ejections (CMEs) will send streams of particles towards our planet, which could get pulled towards the poles and cause light shows as they interact with molecules in the upper atmosphere.

“NOAA forecasters estimate a 35 percent to 60 percent chance of polar geomagnetic storms on April 1-2 when at least three CMEs are expected to deliver glancing blows to Earth’s magnetic field,” SpaceWeather.com wrote. “The best-guess forecast calls for minor G1-class storms. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.”

Aurora seen near Fairbanks, Alaska on March 21, 2014. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
Aurora seen near Fairbanks, Alaska on March 21, 2014. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.

At the top of this story, you can view a video of the flare from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a NASA satellite launched in 2010 to observe the sun’s activity. This not only has applications for aurora watchers, but also for those people concerned about the effect CMEs have on Earth’s satellites, power lines and other sensitive infrastructure.

Below is an older picture from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, a joint NASA and European Space Agency mission that also keeps an eye on solar activity. The sun has an 11-year cycle of solar activity, and you can see peak year 2001 at the front of the image along with quieter years 1996 and 2006 near the back. The year 2014 is just off the peak for this solar cycle.

If you catch a light show, be sure to post it on the Universe Today Flickr pool, and we may include it in a future story!

A solar cycle in X-rays. The peak in 2001 is visible at the front, with quietest years 1996 and 2006 near the back. The sun's 11-year-solar cycle sees an increase in sunspots and solar activity at its peak. The year 2014 is close to the peak year for activity, but the cycle has been more muted than the 2001 cycle. Credit: Steele Hill, SOHO, NASA/ESA
A solar cycle in X-rays. The peak in 2001 is visible at the front, with quietest years 1996 and 2006 near the back. The sun’s 11-year-solar cycle sees an increase in sunspots and solar activity at its peak. The year 2014 is close to the peak year for activity, but the cycle has been more muted than the 2001 cycle. Credit: Steele Hill, SOHO, NASA/ESA

Yesterday’s Mammoth Solar Flare Is The Biggest Of 2014 So Far

She’s a rainbow! You can see the first moments of a huge flare belching off the sun in the picture above. The so-called X-class flare erupted a few hours ago (at 7:25 p.m. EST Feb. 24, or 12:25 a.m. UTC Feb. 25) and was captured by several spacecraft. If you have a pictures of the sun yourself to share, feel free to post them in the Universe Today Flickr pool.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory saw the flare growing in at least six different wavelengths of light, which are visible in the image above. This is classified this as an X4.9-class flare, which shows that it is pretty strong. X-flares are the most powerful kind that the sun emits, and each X number is supposed to be twice as intense as the previous one (so an X-2 flare is twice as powerful as X-1, for example).

SpaceWeather.com says this is the most powerful flare of the year so far, emitted from sunspot AR1967 (or more properly speaking, AR1990; sunspots are renamed if they survive a full rotation of the sun, as this one has done twice already!) While solar flares can lead to auroras, in this case it appears the blast was pointed in the wrong direction, the site added.

“Although this flare is impressive, its effects are mitigated by the location of the blast site–near the sun’s southeastern limb, and not facing Earth,” SpaceWeather stated. “Indeed, a bright coronal mass ejection (CME) which raced away from the sun shortly after the flare appears set to miss our planet.”

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory illustrates increased solar activity between Feb. 18-20, 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC
This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory illustrates increased solar activity between Feb. 18-20, 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of sunspot and solar activity, which is supposed to be at its peak right now. This particular peak has been very muted, but lately things have been picking up. The European Space Agency noted that between Feb. 18 and 20, the sun sent out six CMEs in three days, with most of them moving in different directions.

“This level of activity is consistent with what we might expect as the Sun is near its maximum period of activity in the 11-year solar cycle,” ESA stated.

You can see the sun changing on this SDO page, showing the latest views of the sun in different wavelengths. And for more information on sunspots, check out this NASA page explaining a little more about how they work.

ISON Appears To Be Fading, But Astronomers Keeping Eyes Peeled

A brief morning update (EST) from Karl Battams, who studies sungrazing comets at the Naval Research Laboratory, confirms social media reports that Comet C/2012 S1 ISON appears to be getting fainter in images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). (To compare, you can see older images below the jump.)

“Comet #ISON really is fading fast and I no longer see any sign of a “central condensation” (i.e. no obvious indication of a nucleus…),” Battams wrote on Twitter. “I *do* think that something emerged from the Sun, but probably a v.small nucleus or “rubble pile”, and I fear that may have now dissolved.”

This comet, however, has defied predictions over and over again. We’ll keep you posted as to its progress.

Astronomers wrote off  Comet ISON on Thursday (Nov. 28) shortly after it rounded the sun, but it brightened considerably afterwards and researchers said it’s possible a small nucleus did survive the close encounter. Battams previously noted ISON’s behavior is much different than the other 2,000 or so sungrazers he’s observed.

The comet was discovered Sept. 21, 2012 by Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski while conducting the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) survey and has been the subject of intense speculation about its brightness prospects since.

Bright, brighter, brightest: these views of Comet ISON after its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28 show that a small part of the nucleus may have survived the encounter. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC
Bright, brighter, brightest: these views of Comet ISON after its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28 show that a small part of the nucleus may have survived the encounter. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC

Zombie ISON ‘Behaving Like A Comet’, Stunned Astronomers Say

Talk about the Comeback Kid. After Comet C/2012 S1 ISON rounded the sun yesterday afternoon, professional astronomers around the world looked at the faded debris and concluded it was an “ex-comet.” NASA wrapped up an hours-long Google+ Hangout with that news. The European Space Agency declared it was dead on Twitter.

But the remnants — or whatever ISON is now — kept brightening and brightening and brightening in images from the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The pictures are still puzzling astronomers right now, almost a day after ISON’s closest encounter with the sun.

 

You can follow our liveblogged confusion yesterday, capped by a gobsmacking announcement from the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams, “We believe some small part of ISON’s nucleus has SURVIVED perihelion,” he said on Twitter. Since then, Battams wrote a detailed blog post, referring to images from the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) aboard SOHO:

“Matthew [Knight] and I are ripping our hair out right now as we know that so many people in the public, the media and in science teams want to know what’s happened. We’d love to know that too! Right now, here’s our working hypothesis: As comet ISON plunged towards to the Sun, it began to fall apart, losing not giant fragments but at least a lot of reasonably sized chunks. There’s evidence of very large dust in the form of that long thin tail we saw in the LASCO C2 images.

After its closest approach to to the sun on Nov. 28 (left), Comet ISON appeared a dim shadow of its former self (at right). "The comet may still be intact," NASA wrote on Nov. 29. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Jhelioviewer
After its closest approach to to the sun on Nov. 28 (left), Comet ISON appeared a dim shadow of its former self (at right). “The comet may still be intact,” NASA wrote on Nov. 29. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Jhelioviewer

Then, as ISON plunged through the corona, it continued to fall apart and vaporize, and lost its coma and tail completely just like Lovejoy did in 2011. (We have our theories as to why it didn’t show up in the SDO images but that’s not our story to tell – the SDO team will do that.) Then, what emerged from the Sun was a small but perhaps somewhat coherent nucleus, that has resumed emitting dust and gas for at least the time being. In essence, the tail is growing back, as Lovejoy’s did.

So while our theory certainly has holes, right now it does appear that a least some small fraction of ISON has remained in one piece and is actively releasing material. We have no idea how big this nucleus is, if there is indeed one. If there is a nucleus, it is still too soon to tell how long it will survive. If it does survive for more than a few days, it is too soon to tell if the comet will be visible in the night sky. If it is visible in the night sky, it is too soon to say how bright it will be…

This morning (EST), Battams succinctly summarized the latest images he saw: “Based on a few more hours of data, comet #ISON appears to be… well, behaving like a comet!”, he wrote on Twitter.

NASA issued a status update this morning saying it’s unclear if this leftover is debris or an actual nucleus, but added that “late-night analysis from scientists with NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact.” NASA, as well as Battams, pointed out that comet has behaved unpredictably throughout the 15 months scientists and amateurs have been observing it.

Mike Hankey of Monkton, Maryland took this photo of Comet ISON in outburst this morning Nov. 14. The tail now shows multiple streamers. Click to enlarge. Credit: Mike Hankey
Mike Hankey of Monkton, Maryland took this photo of Comet ISON in outburst Nov. 14. The tail showed multiple streamers. Click to enlarge. Credit: Mike Hankey

Throughout the year that researchers have watched Comet ISON – and especially during its final approach to the sun – the comet brightened and dimmed in unexpected ways.  Such brightness changes usually occur in response to material boiling off the comet, and different material will do so at different temperatures thus providing clues as to what the comet is made of.  Analyzing this pattern will help scientists understand the composition of ISON, which contains material assembled during the very formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

Slate Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait jokingly threw out phrases like “What the what?” on Twitter yesterday, but added in a late-night update: “If you haven’t figured this out yet: We are *loving* this. The Universe surprises us yet again! How awesome!” He continued with his astonishment in a blog post:

For those keeping score at home, it got bright, then it faded, then it got all smeared out, then it came around the Sun smeared out, and then it seemed to get its act together again. At this point, I refuse to make any further conclusions about this comet; it seems eager to confuse. I’ve been hearing from comet specialists who are just as baffled… which is fantastic! If we knew what was going on, there’d be nothing more to learn.

Science confusion: Comet ISON made its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28. Although it showed up again in images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, scientists could not spot it using the ESA PROBA-2 spacecraft (view pictured). ISON's composition or proximity to the sun may have caused this. Credit: PROBA-2 Science Centre
Science confusion: Comet ISON made its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28. Although it showed up again in images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, scientists could not spot it using the ESA PROBA-2 spacecraft (view pictured). ISON’s composition or proximity to the sun may have caused this. Credit: PROBA-2 Science Centre

In a series of Twitter posts this morning, the European Space Agency’s science feed offered this take from Gerhard Schwehm, ESA’s head of planetary science:

From my initial look at ISON in today’s SOHO images, it seems nucleus has mostly disintegrated. Will only know if part of ISON nucleus has survived by continuing observations and performing more analysis. Bright fan-shape implies lots of material was released and travelling along ISON orbit, not confined in a traditional tail. Would be interesting to learn more about composition of debris to help us piece together what’s happened, but we need more time.

Other spacecraft searching for ISON were not able to spot it. For ESA’s PROBA-2, it may have been because of its composition or proximity to the sun, but scientists are unsure. It was also invisible in NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory; “scientists are still looking at the data to figure out why,” an agency Twitter update stated this morning.

So to sum up: no one’s quite sure of what is happening now, or what is happening next, but we will keep you posted and let you know if and when you can see ISON again in your home telescopes.

One of the finest pictures to date of Comet ISON by ace astrophotographer Damian Peach taken on Oct. 27.
One of the finest pictures to date of Comet ISON by ace astrophotographer Damian Peach taken on Oct. 27.

Is Comet ISON Dead? Astronomers Say It’s Likely After Icarus Sun-Grazing Stunt

Update, 9:55 pm EST: It’s a Thanksgiving miracle: apparently it now looks like ISON has actually survived!!

Image from SOHO indicates a chunk of Comet ISON has survived its close pass of the Sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO.
Image from SOHO indicates a chunk of Comet ISON has survived its close pass of the Sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO.

Update, 8:35 p.m. EST: Uncertainty about Comet ISON’s fate likely will persist for some time. Karl Battams just tweeted that after 2,000 sungrazing comet observations, he has never seen brightening in the same way that ISON (or its remains) appear to be doing right now. We’ll keep watching. Real-time images are available on this website.

Update, 6:30 p.m. EST: An excellent blog post from Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) summarizes his take of the comet’s fate; debris (most likely, he says) continues to show up in images. An except: “It held together a long time, got very bright last night, faded this morning, then apparently fell apart. This isn’t surprising; we see comets disintegrate often enough as they round the Sun. ISON’s nucleus was only a couple of kilometers across at best, so it would have suffered under the Sun’s heat more than a bigger comet would have. Still, there’s more observing to do, and of course much data over which to pore.”

Update, 4:40 p.m. EST: On Twitter, the European Space Agency (quoting SOHO scientist Bernhard Fleck) said the comet is gone. Separately, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams posted that he thinks recent observations show debris from ISON, but not a nucleus. Astronomers are still monitoring, however. 

Update, 3:56 p.m. EST: Something has emerged from perihelion, but the experts are divided as to whether it’s leftovers of ISON’s tail, or the comet itself. Stay tuned.

The fate of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON is uncertain. It made its closest approach to the sun today (Nov. 28) around 1:44 p.m. EST (6:44 p.m. UTC). As of Thursday night, what’s happening to the comet is still unclear, as observers try to keep up hopes for a good comet show in the next few weeks.

It will take a few more hours until NASA and other agencies can say for sure what the comet’s fate is. That said, there still is valuable science that can be performed if ISON has broken up — more details below the jump.

ISON coincided with American Thanksgiving, causing a lot of astronomers and journalists to work holiday hours while pundits made jokes about the comet being “roasted” along with the turkey. Meanwhile, amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson — author of the Waiting for ISON blog — was among those eagerly awaiting the comet’s closest approach.

mars_stu

But as the comet made its closest approach, astronomers grew more and more skeptical than it had survived. Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) pointed out that the comet’s nucleus appeared much dimmer than its tail in images from SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), NASA’s sun-gazing spacecraft. This implied that the nucleus was disintegrating.

phil_plait

Plait and Karl Battams — a Naval Research Laboratory astrophysicist who operates the Sungrazing Comets Project — both participated in a NASA Google+ Hangout on ISON. As of about 2 p.m. EST (7 p.m. UTC), both said that they believe ISON is an “ex-comet”, although it will be a few more hours before scientists can say for sure.

The challenge is that the two spacecraft used to watch ISON swing around the sun — the Solar Dynamics Observatory and SOHO — are not necessarily designed to look for comets. Battams and Plait initially said that it sometimes take additional image processing to view information in it. more As time elapsed though, both expressed extreme skepticism that the comet survived.

Even if the comet is dead, Plait pointed out that scientists can still learn a lot from the remaining debris. ISON is believed to be a pristine example of bodies in the Oort Cloud, a vast body of small objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. Examining the dust in its debris trail could tell scientists more about the origins of the solar system.

“The fact that  it’s broken up is really cool. There’s a lot we can learn from it and a lot we can get from it,” he said.

Battams added that ISON has been a very unpredictable comet, flaring up when people expected it would fade, and vice versa. “ISON is just weird. It has behaved unpredictably at times. When it’s done something strange, we spent some time scratching our heads, figuring out what is going on and we think we know what it’s doing … it then goes and does something different.”

Amid the waiting came the inevitable social media jokes (including science fiction and fantasy references.)

kurtis_williams

 

suthers

 

ison_isoff

 

For others, the comet served as an inspiration for daring to be courageous.

peter_fries