What Left These Spooky Trails in the Sky?

Ball lightning? Spectral orbs? Swamp gas? Early this morning, May 7, these eerie glowing trails were seen in the sky above the Marshall Islands and were captured on camera by NASA photographer John Grant. Of course, if NASA’s involved there has to be a reasonable explanation, right?

For a larger image (and to see what really caused the trails) click below:

Credit: NASA/Jon Grant
Credit: NASA/John Grant

Although it might look like cheesy special effects, these colorful clouds are actually visible trails that were left by two sounding rockets launched from Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, at 3:39 a.m. EDT on May 7. The rockets were part of the NASA-funded EVEX experiment to study winds and electrical activity in the upper atmosphere.

The red cloud was formed by the release of lithium vapor and the white-and-blue tracer clouds were formed by the release of trimethyl aluminum (TMA). These clouds allowed scientists on the ground from various locations in the Marshall Islands to observe neutral winds in the ionosphere.

“Neutral winds are one of the hardest things to study,” said Doug Rowland, an EVEX team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “One can’t physically see the wind, and it is difficult to measure from the ground, so we use the TMA as a tracer.”

Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)
Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)

The EVEX (Equatorial Vortex Experiment) rockets were launched 90 seconds apart. By staggering the launches the two rockets were able to gather data simultaneously at two altitudes through the ionosphere.

Beginning about 60 miles (96 km) up, the ionosphere is a crucial layer of charged particles surrounding our planet. This layer serves as the medium through which high frequency radio waves – such as those sent down to the ground by satellites – travel. Governed by Earth’s magnetic field, high-altitude winds, and incoming material and energy from the sun, the ionosphere can be calm at certain times of day and at other times turbulent, disrupting satellite signals.

The EVEX experiment is designed to measure events in two separate regions of the ionosphere to see how they work together to drive it from placid and smooth to violently disturbed. Such information could ultimately lead to the ability to accurately forecast this important aspect of space weather.

Read more here.

Image source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr

The White House Releases a Report on Space Weather

We live on a planet dominated by weather. But not just the kind that comes in the form of wind, rain, and snow — we are also under the influence of space weather, generated by the incredible power of our home star a “mere” 93 million miles away. As we orbit the Sun our planet is, in effect, inside its outer atmosphere, and as such is subject to the constantly-flowing wind of charged particles and occasional outbursts of radiation and material that it releases. Although it may sound like something from science fiction, space weather is very real… and the more we rely on sensitive electronics and satellites in orbit, the more we’ll need to have accurate weather reports.

Fortunately, the reality of space weather has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Federal Government.

An X1.6 flare eruption on Jan. 27, 2012 (NASA/SDO/AIA)
An X1.6 flare eruption on Jan. 27, 2012 (NASA/SDO/AIA)

Today the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a new report, Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade, which is an assessment of the United States government’s capacity to monitor and forecast potentially harmful space weather and how to possibly mitigate the damage from any exceptionally powerful solar storms in the future.

The report was made by a Joint Action Group (JAG) formed by the National Space Weather Program Council (NSWPC).

The impacts of space weather can have serious economic consequences. For example, geomagnetic storms during the 1990’s knocked out several telecommunications satellites, which had to be replaced at a cost of about $200 million each. If another “once in a century” severe geomagnetic storm occurs (such as the 1859 “super storm”), the cost on the satellite industry alone could be approximately $50 – $100 billion. The potential consequences on the Nation’s power grid are even higher, with potential costs of $1 – 2 trillion that could take up to a decade to completely repair.

– Report on Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade (April 2013)

“In other words,” according to the report, “the Nation is at risk of losing critical capabilities that have significant economic and security impacts should these key space weather observing systems fail to be maintained and replaced.”

Obviously, not good.

Read the full report here, and follow current and ongoing space weather events on the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center website.

Source: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The National Space Weather Program is a Federal interagency initiative with the mission of advancing the improvement of space weather services and supporting research in order to prepare the country for the technological, economic, security, and health impacts that may arise from extreme space weather events. 

Question About Space Weather? NASA Scientists Have Answers

What’s the difference between a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection? What causes such energetic space events? Worried that the current solar cycle could harm our planet? Here’s part one of a two-part series of common questions people have about the Sun, space weather, and how they affect the Earth. (Part 2 will come out tomorrow.)

There’s also a great webpage from Goddard Space Flight Center that provides video answer to 25 questions on this this topic, such as “could a CME strip off the Earth’s magnetic field?” Check them all out!

Cold Plasma Flourishes In Earth’s Upper Atmosphere


Thousands of miles above Earth, space weather rules. Here storms of high-energy particles mix the atmosphere, create auroras, challenge satellites and even cause disturbances with electric grids and electronic devices below. It’s a seemingly empty and lonely place – one where a mystery called “cold plasma” has been found in abundance and may well have implications with our connection to the Sun. While it has remained virtually hidden, Swedish researchers have created a new method to measure these cold, charged ions. With evidence of more there than once thought, these new findings may very well give us clues as to what’s happening around other planets and their natural satellites.

“The more you look for low-energy ions, the more you find,” said Mats Andre, a professor of space physics at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala, Sweden, and leader of the research team whose findings have been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “We didn’t know how much was out there. It’s more than even I thought.”

Where does this enigma originate? The low-energy ions begin in the upper portion of our atmosphere called the ionosphere. Here solar energy can strip electrons from molecules, leaving atoms such as oxygen and hydrogen with a positive charge. However, physically finding these ions has been problematic. While researchers knew they existed at altitudes of about 100 kilometers (60 miles), Andre and colleague Chris Cully set their sites higher – at between 20,000 and 100,000 km (12,400 to 60,000 mi). At the edge, the amount of cold ions varies between 50 to 70%… making up most of the mass of space.

However, that’s not the only place cold plasma has been found. According to the research satellite data and calculations, certain high-altitude zones harbor low-energy ions continuously. As far fetched as it may sound, the team has also detected them at altitudes of 100,000 km! According to Andre, discovering so many relatively cool ions in these regions is surprising because there’s so much energy hitting the Earth’s high altitudes from the solar wind – a hot plasma about 1,000 times hotter than what Andre considers cold. Just how cold? “The low-energy ions have an energy that would correspond to about 500,000 degrees Celsius (about one million degrees Fahrenheit) at typical gas densities found on Earth. But because the density of the ions in space is so low, satellites and spacecraft can orbit without bursting into flames.”

A scientist examines one of the European Space Agency's four Cluster satellites, used in a recent Geophysical Research Letters study to measure low-energy ions. (Credit: European Space Agency)

Pinpointing these low-energy ions and measuring how much material is leaving our atmosphere has been an elusive task. Andre’s workshop is a satellite and one of the four European Space Agency CLUSTER spacecraft. It houses a detector created from a fine wire that measures the electronic field between them during satellite rotation. However, when the data was collected, the researchers found a pair of mysteries – strong electric fields in unexpected areas of space and electric fields that didn’t fluctuate evenly.

“To a scientist, it looked pretty ugly,” Andre said. “We tried to figure out what was wrong with the instrument. Then we realized there’s nothing wrong with the instrument.” What they found opened their eyes. Cold plasma was changing the arrangement of the electrical fields surrounding the satellite. This made them realize they could utilize their field measurements to validate the presence of cold plasma. “It’s a clever way of turning the limitations of a spacecraft-based detector into assets,” said Thomas Moore, senior project scientist for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He was not involved in the new research.

Through these new techniques, science can measure and map Earth’s cold plasma envelope – and learn more about how both hot and cold plasma change during extreme space weather conditions. This research points towards a better understanding of atmospheres other than our own, too. Currently the new measurements show about a kilogram (two pounds) of cold plasma escapes from Earth’s atmosphere every second, By having a solid figure as a basis for rate of loss, scientists may be able model what became of Mars’ atmosphere – or explain the atmosphere around other planets and moons. It can also aid in more accurate space weather forecasting – even if it doesn’t directly influence the environment itself. It is a key player, even if it doesn’t cause the damage itself. “You may want to know where the low-pressure area is, to predict a storm,” Andre noted.

Modernizing space weather forecasting to where it is similar to ordinary weather forecasting, was “not even remotely possible if you’re missing most of your plasma,” Moore, with NASA, said. Now, with a way to measure cold plasma, the goal of high-quality forecasts is one step closer. “It is stuff we couldn’t see and couldn’t detect, and then suddenly we could measure it,” Moore said of the low-energy ions. “Now you can actually study it and see if it agrees with the theories.”

Original Story Source: American Geophysical Union News Release. For Further Reading: Low-energy ions: A previously hidden solar system particle population.

Stormy Weather: Brown Dwarf Star Could Model Extra-Solar Planet Atmosphere

[/caption]Thanks to the help of the infrared camera on the 2.5m telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, astronomers are taking a very close look at a brown dwarf star named 2MASS J2139. During a recent survey they noticed something a little bit peculiar about this transitional solar system entity. Not only does it lay somewhere in-between being a dwarf star or a large planet – but it would appear to have a form of weather. Apparently there’s no place to escape clouds!

A University of Toronto-led team of astronomers had been doing a survey of nearby brown dwarfs, when they noticed that one in particular changed brightness in a matter of hours – the largest variation observed so far.

“We found that our target’s brightness changed by a whopping 30 per cent in just under eight hours,” said PhD candidate Jacqueline Radigan, lead author of a paper to be presented this week at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. “The best explanation is that brighter and darker patches of its atmosphere are coming into our view as the brown dwarf spins on its axis,” said Radigan.

The team quickly took into account all possibilities for the differences in magnitude – from the possibility of a binary companion to cool magnetic spots – but none of these answers were likely. What could be causing this difference in brightness that seemed to be rotational?

“We might be looking at a gigantic storm raging on this brown dwarf, perhaps a grander version of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter in our own solar system, or we may be seeing the hotter, deeper layers of its atmosphere through big holes in the cloud deck,” said co-author Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and author of the recent book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System.

Using computer modeling, astronomers can hypothesize what may be going on as silicates and metals mix over a variety of temperatures. The result is a condensate cloud. Thanks to 2MASS J2139’s variability, we’re able to observe what may be evolving “weather patterns”. These models may one day help us to extrapolate extra-solar giant planet weather conditions.

“Measuring how quickly cloud features change in brown dwarf atmospheres may allow us to infer atmospheric wind speeds eventually and teach us about how winds are generated in brown dwarf and planetary atmospheres,” Radigan added.

Original Story Source: University of Toronto News. For Further Reading: High Amplitude, Periodic Variability of a Cool Brown Dwarf: Evidence for Patchy, High-Contrast Cloud Features.