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METEORS FROM HALLEY'S COMET: NASA's network of all-sky meteor cameras is picking up a slow drizzle of meteors emerging from the constellation Orion. They are bits of debris from Halley's Comet, source of the annual Orionid meteor shower. Forecasters expect the shower to intensify and peak on Oct. 20-21 with as many as 20 meteors per hour. The best time to look is during the dark hours before sunrise next Wednesday morning. [sky map] [meteor radar]
GEOMAGNETIC STORM: A G1-class geomagnetic storm erupted during the early hours of Oct. 18th, sparking auroras across Canada and several northern-tier US states. Alan Dyer photographed the lights from Gleichen, Alberta:
"It was a beautiful autumn night--an aurora display, one of many these last couple of weeks, down a prairie road in southern Alberta, with the Big Dipper swinging low on the northern horizon," says Dyer.
The display was caused by a shift in the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) near Earth. The IMF tilted south. This opened a crack in our planet's magnetosphere. Solar wind poured in, fueling the storm. Aurora alerts: text or voice
Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery
MORNING PLANETS: Up before dawn? Go outside and look east. Venus, Jupiter and Mars are converging for a 3-way conjunction that is growing more beautiful with each passing sunrise. Mark A. Brown sends this snapshot from Carlisle, Pennsylvania:
"It was a splendid gathering of four planets in the constellation Leo this morning," says Brown. "A weak weather front was just enough to clear the skies for an enjoyable morning show."
The show is about to get even better. The convergence will continue until Oct. 24th - Oct. 29th when the three planets fit within a circle only 5o wide (sky maps: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6). Typical binoculars can see a patch of sky about 6o or 7o degrees wide. So when the triangle of planets shrinks to 5o, they will fit together inside a binocular field of view. Imagine looking through the eyepiece and seeing three planets--all at once.
By the time October comes to an end, the planetary triangle will start breaking apart. But there are still two dates of special interest: Nov. 6th and 7th (sky maps: #1, #2). On those increasingly wintry mornings, the crescent Moon will swoop in among the dispersing planets for a loose but beautiful conjunction.
Look east before sunrise. It's a nice way to begin the day.
Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery
DID RADIATION KILL THE MARTIAN? Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you haven't yet seen The Martian. Also, a sharable permalink to this article may be found here.
The #1 movie in theatres right now is The Martian, a film adaptation of Andy Weir's eponymous book. It tells the heart-pounding story of fictional astronaut Mark Watney, who is stranded on Mars and ultimately rescued by the crewmates who had inadvertently left him behind. To survive long enough to be rescued, Watney has to "science the hell out of" a very tricky situation: he grows food in alien soil, extracts water from rocket fuel, dodges Martian dust storms, and sends signals to NASA using an old Mars rover that had been buried in red sand for some 30 years.
It's a thrilling adventure told with considerable accuracy—except, perhaps, for one thing. "While Andy Weir does a good job of representing the risks faced by Mark Watney stranded on Mars, he is silent on the threat of radiation, not just to Mark but particularly to the crew of the Hermes as they execute a daring rescue mission that more than doubles their time in deep space," says Dr. Ron Turner, Distinguished Analyst at ANSER, a public-service research institute in Virginia.
Space radiation comes from two main sources: solar storms and galactic cosmic rays. Solar storms are intense, short-lived, and infrequent. Fortunately for Mark, there weren't any during his mission. He dodged that bullet. However, he and his crewmates could not have avoided cosmic rays. These are high-energy particles that arise from supernovas, colliding neutron stars, and other violent events happening all the time in the Milky Way. They are ever-present, 24/7, and there is no way to avoid them. So far, NASA has developed no effective shield against these sub-atomic cannon balls from deep space. "Doubling a nominal spacecraft shielding thickness only reduces the GCR [galactic cosmic rays] exposure by a few percent," notes Turner.
In the movie, Watney is actually safer than the crew of the Hermes. Turner explains: "The radiation exposure is significantly less on the surface of Mars. For one thing, the planet beneath your feet reduces your exposure by half. The atmosphere, while thin, further reduces the dose. The dose rate on Mars, while high, is only about 1/3rd of that on the Hermes."
The biggest threat from cosmic radiation exposure is the possibility of dying from radiation-induced cancer sometime after a safe return to Earth. NASA's radiation limits today are set to limit this life-shortening risk to less than three percent. Taking into account many factors, such as the phase of the solar cycle and the number of days the crew spent in deep space and on the surface of Mars, Turner has calculated the total dose of cosmic rays absorbed by Watney (41 cSv) and the crew (72 cSv). "cSV" is a centi-Seivert, a unit of radiation commonly used in discussion of human dose rates.
There is considerable uncertainty in how these doses translate into an increased risk of cancer. Turner estimates the added risk to Watney as somewhere between 0.25% and 3.25%. For members of the crew, the added risk ranges from 0.48% to 7.6%. The high end of these ranges are well outside NASA safety limits. The crew especially could be facing medical problems after their homecoming.
Post-flight cancer is not the only problem, however. "There is some additional concern that sustained radiation exposure could lead to other problems that manifest during the mission, instead of years afterward. Possible examples include heart disease, reduced immune system effectiveness, and neurological effects mimicking the symptoms of Alzheimer disease."
As far as we can tell, none of these things happened to the crew of the Hermes. It's just as well. They had enough trouble without cosmic rays.
Sharable permalink: Did Radiation Kill the Martian?
Realtime Eclipse Photo Gallery
Realtime Sprite Photo Gallery
Every night, a network of NASA all-sky cameras
scans the skies above the United States for meteoritic fireballs. Automated software maintained by NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office calculates their orbits, velocity, penetration depth in Earth's atmosphere and many other characteristics. Daily results are presented here on Spaceweather.com.
On Oct. 18, 2015, the network reported 66 fireballs.
(58 sporadics, 7 Orionids, 1 Southern Taurid)
In this diagram of the inner solar system, all of the fireball orbits intersect at a single point--Earth. The orbits are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue). [Larger image] [movies]
Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs
) are space rocks larger than approximately 100m that can come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU. None of the known PHAs is on a collision course with our planet, although astronomers are finding new ones
all the time.
On October 18, 2015 there were potentially hazardous asteroids. Notes: LD means "Lunar Distance." 1 LD = 384,401 km, the distance between Earth and the Moon. 1 LD also equals 0.00256 AU. MAG is the visual magnitude of the asteroid on the date of closest approach.
| ||Cosmic Rays in the Atmosphere |
These measurements are based on space weather balloon flights, described below.
|Situation Report -- Oct. 17, 2015 ||Stratospheric Radiation (+37o N) |
|Cosmic ray levels are elevated (+5.9% above the Space Age median). The trend is flat. Cosmic ray levels have increased +0% in the past month. |
|Sept. 06: 4.14 uSv/hr (414 uRad/hr) |
|Sept. 12: 4.09 uSv/hr (409 uRad/hr) |
|Sept. 23: 4.12 uSv/hr (412 uRad/hr) |
|Sept. 25: 4.16 uSv/hr (416 uRad/hr) |
|Sept. 27: 4.13 uSv/hr (4.13 uRad/hr) |
Introduction: Once a week, and sometimes more often, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus fly "space weather balloons" to the stratosphere. These balloons are equipped with radiation sensors that detect cosmic rays, a form of space weather important to people on Earth. Cosmic rays can alter the chemistry of the upper atmosphere, seed clouds, spark exotic forms of lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. This last point is of special interest to the traveling public. Our measurements show that someone flying back and forth across the continental USA, just once, can absorb as much ionizing radiation as 2 to 5 dental X-rays. From now on we will present the results of our regular weekly balloon flights in this section of our web site. Here is the radiation profile from our latest flight:
Radiation levels peak at the entrance to the stratosphere in a broad region called the "Pfotzer Maximum." This peak is named after physicist George Pfotzer who discovered it using balloons and Geiger tubes in the 1930s. Radiation levels there are nearly 100x sea level.
Note that the bottom of the Pfotzer Maximim is near 55,000 ft. This means that some high-flying aircraft are not far from the zone of maximum radiation. Indeed, according to the Sept. 27th measurements, a plane flying at 45,000 feet is exposed to 288 uRads/hr. At that rate, a passenger would absorb about one dental X-ray's worth of radiation in 5 hours.
The radiation sensors onboard our helium balloons detect X-rays and gamma-rays in the energy range 10 keV to 20 MeV. These energies span the range of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners.
Stay tuned for improvements to this section in the days and weeks ahead as we develop a glossary and better plain language strategies for communicating this information. Suggestions are welcomed.
| ||The official U.S. government space weather bureau |
| ||The first place to look for information about sundogs, pillars, rainbows and related phenomena. |
| ||Researchers call it a "Hubble for the sun." SDO is the most advanced solar observatory ever. |
| ||3D views of the sun from NASA's Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory |
| ||Realtime and archival images of the Sun from SOHO. |
| ||from the NOAA Space Environment Center |
| ||the underlying science of space weather |
| ||Web-based high school science course with free enrollment |