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Solar Activity

A big sunspot is emerging over the sun's southeastern limb, and it is crackling with activity. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded a surge of extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sunspot's magnetic canopy on March 21st. (Spaceweather.com)

Saturn Ring Shining Bright Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

April 1, 2011

Another sky happening in April is the increased brightness of Saturn’s rings.  SpaceWeather.com ran the following:

SATURN’S RINGS SURGE IN BRIGHTNESS: This Sunday, April 3rd, Saturn will be “at opposition”–that is, opposite the sun in the skies of Earth. Whenever this happens, Saturn’s rings surge in brightness. Why? Scroll down for the explanation; on the way, inspect this photo taken by Paul Haese of South Australia on March 30th:

“This is how Saturn looked through my 14-inch telescope,” says Haese. “With opposition so close, the Seeliger effect is really starting to show itself. The rings are much more spectacular than in previous years.”

The Seeliger effect, also known as the opposition effect, is what brightens the rings. Saturn’s rings are made of frozen chunks ranging in size from dust to houses. Sunlight directly backscattered from those ice particles causes the ring system to shine even more than usual for a few days around opposition. The exact mechanism involves shadow-hiding and possibly coherent backscattering.

To find Saturn, go outside at midnight and look for a bright yellow “star” in the constellation Virgo. Even a small telescope will show Saturn’s brightening rings. Stay tuned for a sky map.

more images: from Efrain Morales Rivera of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; from Christopher Go of Cebu City, Philippines

 

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Fire in the Night Sky

April 1, 2011

Do you enjoy watching for meteors in the night sky?  Now is the time of year that there is an increase in fireballs in the night sky.  Science does not yet understand why but we can still enjoy what we do not understand.

SpaceWeather.com posted the following and gave a link to the NASA site that records the activity each night, so if you cannot go outside and see for yourself, you can always check it out on NASA’s site:

SPRING IS FIREBALL SEASON: For reasons researchers do not understand, the rate of midnight fireballs increases during the weeks around the vernal equinox. It’s a beautiful display, but where do they come from? NASA’s growing network of fireball cameras is scanning the heavens for answers: full story.

 

The True Shape of the Earth

March 31, 2011

We get a truer picture of the shape of the earth from a satellite, called GOCE — for Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer — which has been orbiting the Earth since 2009; from it we have been determining the effect of gravitational forces on the earth.  This data supplies a picture of the actual shape of the earth, which as noted is spheroid but not spherical as so many of us imagine. It is also interesting to note where the gravitational pull is strong compared to where it is weak.  All the ‘why’s’ are something we still do not fully understand… just another of the mysteries of our solar system. What we do know is that these gravity fields play an important part in our weather, oceans and the overall existence of life on planet earth.

Check out these articles:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/03/31/the-earths-lumpy-gravity/#more-30246

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12911806

 

Catching a Ripple in Space-Time: JPL Mission to Detect Gravitational Waves

March 27, 2011

JPL, in conjunction with the European Space Agency and NASA, is preparing a mission for 2020 named LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna).   Its purpose is to try and detect a ripple in time/space (gravitational wave).   Consider the possibilities if they succeed… it will be the first step to really understanding the mysteries of the gravitational force; a  force which has perplexed physicists searching for a ‘theory of everything’ for over a century.  Perhaps what they find will once and for all allow us to make sense of the how all of the currently known forces work together on both the macro and micro levels.  And what if, just like electricity, we can harness the power of the ripple long before we understand exactly how and why it works.

Artists rendition of proposed LISA mission which would include three craft. Image credit: ESA

The article notes that the mystery surrounding two pulsars first led us to indirectly observe what is believed to be gravitational waves.

“…1974, researchers discovered a pair of orbiting dead stars — a type called pulsars — that were spiraling closer and closer together due to an unexplainable loss of energy. That energy was later shown to be in the form of gravitational waves.”

The article goes on to note that this mission if successful would give us a whole new way of looking at our universe:

“LISA is expected to not only “hear” the waves, but also learn more about their sources — massive objects such as black holes and dead stars, which sing the waves like melodies out to the universe as the objects accelerate through space and time. The mission would be able to detect gravitational waves from massive objects in our Milky Way galaxy as well as distant galaxies, allowing scientists to tune into an entirely new language of our universe.”

Read the full article:  Tuning an ‘Ear’ to the Music of Gravitational Waves – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sun Entering Season of Heightened Activity

March 24, 2011

Solar Plasma Cloud – Strongest in four years“Our sun is entering a season of heightened activity.  If early indications hold, for the first time in modern history we, our world with a culture so dependent upon satellites, may turn our eyes skyward as we experience GPS, television, cell phone and internet connectivity interruptions.”

February 15, 2011 the above alert was posted by the Space Weather Forecast Centre in Belgium when they witnessed extreme space weather. (The Centre puts out alerts to anyone who signs up for them at http://sidc.be/index.php).  This particular alert noted that an X2.3-solar X-ray flare occurred.  This was the strongest flare in four years since an X1.5 occurred in 2006.

Solar flares are rated from weakest to strongest by A, B, C, M, or X; an X class flare being the strongest.  The magnitude of the flare is then further defined by the addition of a number (e.g. an X2 flare is twice as strong as an X1 flare).  Since we began recording and ranking solar flares in 1976, the strongest flare appeared in April of 2003, which was rated as X28+.

The key to whether a flare affects us here on earth is whether the flare occurs on the earth facing side of the sun.  Predicting solar weather is a relatively new area and therefore years behind our ability to predict weather within our atmosphere.  For the purpose of better tracking and predicting when solar activity may occur and whether it will affect us, two Stereo satellites were put into orbit by NASA that allow us to monitor the entire surface of the sun.

A Square Moon!

March 24, 2011

SpaceWeather.com ran the following today, March 24, 2010.  It is a picture of the moon as seen in Alaska through a unique set of atmospheric conditions.  Every day SpaceWeather.com runs great pictures and snippets about our solar system.  Check it out daily for cool stuff like a picture of a square moon!

“SQUARE SUPER MOON: Like so many other people around the world, James Helmericks of Alaska went outside on the evening of March 19th to watch the super perigee Moon rise in the east. “Imagine my surprise,” he says, “when I saw that it was almost square.” He took this picture from the Colville River Delta on Alaska’s north slope:

Atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley explains what happened: “This is a very strong mirage produced by rays bent while crossing intense vertical temperature gradients between a layer of cold air beneath warmer air. The lunar disk details are vertically stretched, suggesting that the mirage is part of a fabled Fata Morgana. If we could see distant mountains they would likely be distorted into fantastical vertically elongated shapes resembling castles and tall spires. The high Arctic is famous for these mirages.”  “

SpaceWeather.com: Here Comes Trouble?

March 22, 2011
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SpaceWeather.com posted this note yesterday, March 21, 2011, along with this great picture, check out below and visit their site for daily updates on the latest of significant solar weather events.

“HERE COMES TROUBLE? A big sunspot is emerging over the sun’s southeastern limb, and it is crackling with activity. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded a surge of extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sunspot’s magnetic canopy on March 21st:

This appears to be the return of old sunspot 1165, last seen in early March when it formed on the sun’s southwestern limb. Since then it has been transiting the far side of the sun, apparently growing in size and restlessness. The potential for trouble will become more clear in the hours ahead as the active region emerges in full. Stay tuned.”

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