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GOOD NEWS ON MARS: After six weeks of hunkering down during raging dust storms that limited solar power, Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have resumed driving. The storms, albeit not over, are abating and sunlight is beginning to stream through the clouds. Just one problem: dust is settling on the rover's solar panels, which tends to block the intensifying sunlight. On balance, though, the situation is improving and for now the rovers are back in business: more.
SOLAR ACTIVITY: Sunspot 969 poses no threat for intense solar activity, but it is crackling with small flares. Rogerio Marcon of Campinas, Brazil, photographed this minor eruption just a few hours ago:
Photo details: 150mm refractor, Coronado SM40 filter, Lumenera Skynix 2.0
Of course, "minor" is relative. The brief explosion pictured above packs about the same energy as tens of million atomic bombs. (A full-fledged X-flare is a million times stronger.) Even minor solar activity is impressive, which makes sunspot 969 worth watching.
more images: from Guillaume Bertrand of Saint Laurent sur Sèvre, Vendée, France.
GIGANTIC JETS: Think of them as sprites on steroids: Gigantic Jets are lightning-like discharges that spring from the top of thunderstorms, reaching all the way from the thunderhead to the ionosphere 50+ miles overhead. They are enormous and powerful.
You've never seen one? "Gigantic Jets are rare," explains atmospheric scientist and Jet-expert Oscar van der Velde of the Université Paul Sabatier's Laboratoire d’Aérologie in Toulouse, France. "The first one was discovered in 2001 by Dr. Victor Pasko in Puerto Rico. Since then fewer than 30 jets have been recorded--mostly over open ocean and on only two occasions over land."
That's why researchers are excited by the events of Aug. 20th. On that night, amateur astronomer Richard Smedley of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, was hunting for meteors using a low light video camera when instead he caught two Gigantic Jets:
Click on the image to view the 4.5 MB video
"They were much brighter than a typical meteor--more like a fireball," says Smedley. To appreciate the size of these things, consider the following: "They came from a thunderstorm more than 100 miles away in Missouri: map." This means the Jets were about 48 miles tall measured upward from the top of the thundercloud.
Because they connect thunderstorms directly to the ionosphere, Gigantic Jets play some role in the global flow of electricity around our planet, but how big is that role? "No one knows," says van der Velde. "This is cutting-edge research and these photos from Oklahoma provide an exciting new case-study."
Amateur astronomers, you can contribute to this research. Check your local weather radar map for storms just over the horizon, point your meteor cameras in that direction, and click. Gigantic Jets may not be as rare as we think.