The season for noctilucent “night-shining” clouds is arriving in the northern hemisphere, when wispy, glowing tendrils of high-altitude ice crystals may be seen around the upper latitudes, shining long after the Sun has set. Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds) are the highest cloud formations in the atmosphere. They’ve been associated with rocket launches and space shuttle re-entries and are now thought to also be associated with meteor activity… and for some reason, this year they showed up a week early.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) form between 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) above Earth’s surface when there is just enough water vapor to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it is just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen, giving them their night-shining properties. This year NASA’s AIM spacecraft, which is orbiting Earth on a mission to study high-altitude ice, started seeing noctilucent clouds on May 13th.
“The 2013 season is remarkable because it started in the northern hemisphere a week earlier than any other season that AIM has observed,” reports Cora Randall of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “This is quite possibly earlier than ever before.”
The early start is extra-puzzling because of the solar cycle. Researchers have long known that NLCs tend to peak during solar minimum and bottom-out during solar maximum — a fairly strong anti-correlation. “If anything, we would have expected a later start this year because the solar cycle is near its maximum,” Randall says. “So much for expectations.”
The short answer? Really big. The long answer? Really, really big.
The image above shows sunspot regions in comparison with the sizes of Earth and Jupiter, demonstrating the sheer enormity of these solar features.
Sunspots are regions where the Sun’s internal magnetic fields rise up through its surface layers, preventing convection from taking place and creating cooler, optically darker areas. They often occur in pairs or clusters, with individual spots corresponding to the opposite polar ends of magnetic lines.
(Read “What Are Sunspots?”)
The image on the left was acquired by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 11, 2012, showing Active Region 11476. The one on the right comes courtesy of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and shows the largest sunspot ever captured on film, AR 14886. It was nearly the diameter of Jupiter — 88,846 miles (142,984 km)!
“The largest sunspots tend to occur after solar maximum and the larger sunspots tend to last longer as well,” writes SDO project scientist Dean Pesnell on the SDO is GO blog. “As we move through solar maximum in the northern hemisphere and look to the south to pick up the slack there should be plenty of sunspots to watch rotate by SDO.”
Sunspots are associated with solar flares and CMEs, which can send solar storms our way and negatively affect satellite operation and impact communications and sensitive electronics here on Earth. As we approach the peak of the current solar maximum cycle, it’s important to keep an eye — or a Solar Dynamics Observatory! — on the increasing activity of our home star.
(Image credit: NASA/SDO and the Carnegie Institution)
An enormous triangular hole in the Sun’s corona was captured earlier today by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, seen above from the AIA 211 imaging assembly. This gap in the Sun’s atmosphere is allowing more charged solar particles to stream out into the Solar System… and toward Earth as well.
Normally, loops of magnetic energy keep much of the Sun’s outward flow of gas contained. Coronal holes are regions — sometimes very large regions, such as the one witnessed today — where the magnetic fields don’t loop back onto the Sun but instead stream outwards, creating channels for solar material to escape.
The material constantly flowing outward is called the solar wind, which typically “blows” at around 250 miles (400 km) per second. When a coronal hole is present, though, the wind speed can double to nearly 500 miles (800 km) per second.
Increased geomagnetic activity and even geomagnetic storms may occur once the gustier solar wind reaches Earth, possibly within two to three days.
The holes appear dark in SDO images because they are cooler than the rest of the corona, which is extremely hot — around 1,000,000 C (1,800,000 F)!
Here’s another image, this one in another AIA channel (193):