Space Lightning Over China

On Aug. 13th in China, photographer Phebe Pan was photographing the night sky, hoping to catch a Perseid meteor. Instead, he witnessed a spectacular bolt of “space lightning.” Working atop Shi Keng Kong, the highest mountain peak in the Guangdong province, “I was using a fisheye lens to capture as much of the sky as possible,” says Pan. “Suddenly we saw a flash of blue and purple ejected from the top of a nearby thundercloud. It just looked like a tree with branches, and grew up very fast. So awesome!”

“It just looked like a tree with branches, and grew up very fast,” says Pan. “It lasted just less than one second. So awesome!”

Oscar van der Velde, a member of the Lightning Research Group at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, explains what Pan saw: “This is a very lucky capture of a gigantic jet. It’s the first time I’ve seen one captured using a fisheye lens!”

Think of them as sprites on steroids: Gigantic jets are lightning-like discharges that spring from the tops of thunderstorms, reaching all the way to the ionosphere more than 50 miles overhead. They’re enormous and powerful.

“Gigantic jets are much more rare than sprites,” says van der Velde. “While sprites were discovered in 1989 and have since been photographed by the thousands, it was not until 2001-2002 that gigantic jets were first recorded from Puerto Rico and Taiwan.” Only a few dozen gigantic jets have ever been seen.

Like their cousins the sprites, gigantic jets reach all the way up to the edge of space alongside meteors, noctilucent clouds, and some auroras. This means they are a true space weather phenomenon. Indeed, some researchers believe cosmic rays help trigger these exotic forms of lightning, but the link is controversial.

Realtime Sprite Photo Gallery

Perseid Meteor Outburst

Every year in August, Earth passes through a stream of debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, source of the annual Perseid meteor shower. The shower is beloved by sky watchers. It is rich in fireballs and plays out over a two-week period of warm, starry summer nights.

This year’s display is going to be even better than usual. “Our models predict an outburst on Aug. 11-12 with peak rates greater than 200 meteors/hour under ideally dark skies,” explains Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “That’s about twice as many Perseids as usual.”

Perseids in Aug. 2015, a composite image by Petr Horalek of Kolonica, Slovakia [more]

In ordinary years, Earth grazes the edge of Swift-Tuttle’s debris zone. Occasionally, though, Jupiter’s gravity tugs the huge network of dust trails closer, and Earth plows through closer to the middle. This appears to be one of those years. Experts at NASA and elsewhere agree that three or more streams are on a collision course with Earth–hence the outburst.

Observing tips: Go outside between midnight and dawn on the morning of Aug. 12th. Allow about 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Lie on your back and look straight up. Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky, but their tails will point back to a single point in the constellation Perseus: sky map. Increased activity may also be seen on the morning of Aug. 13th.

Got clouds? NASA is planning a live broadcast of the Perseid meteor shower overnight on Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13, beginning at 10 p.m. EDT. You can also listen to radar echoes from the Perseids on Space Weather Radio. More webcasts: from Israel, from Alabama.

Realtime Perseid Photo Gallery

A Mysterious Form of Aurora

Humans have been watching the aurora borealis for thousands of years, with scientific studies of the phenomenon underway for centuries.  Despite all that watching and studying, however, there are still some auroral forms that remain a mystery–namely, the “proton arc.” This one appeared over the Grande Cache area of Alberta, Canada, on July 29th:

“As I was driving to the Kakwa river, I saw a purple ‘proton arc’ crossing the sky from east to west, pulsing and dancing with the Northern lights,” says photographer Catalin Tapardel. “Quite a show….”

Aurora photographers see these structures from time to time–tight ribbons of light, sometimes red, sometimes green, writhing across the night sky.  They are commonly called “proton arcs.”

Yet aurora scientists say they probably have nothing to do with protons.

“My opinion, and I believe the consensus of most aurora scientists, is that these arcs are not proton related, ” says Jason Ahrns, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “but I don’t know what does cause them.”

“Ordinary auroras we see from the ground and space are caused by electrons precipitating down into the atmosphere,” says Dennis Gallagher of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. “Protons can cause auroras, too, but they are different. For one thing, proton auroras are brightest in the UV part of the spectrum, invisible to the human eye.”

There is some visible light from proton auroras, but the structures they make are not tight and filamentary, but rather broad and diffuse–“in part because the gyroradius of protons is large,” says Ahrns. In other words, massive protons circle around magnetic fields in broad lazy arcs unlike lightweight electrons, which can tightly circle magnetic fields to form narrow structures.

Ahrns photographed an authentic proton aurora in February 2014: photo. “It appearance matched the description of proton arcs in the scientific literature – ‘a dim and diffuse glow’ with ‘very little structure in the observed brightness’ with a total brightness of only a few kiloRayleighs, which is just on the verge of visual threshold (Lummerzheim 2001).”

So what are the “proton arcs” often photographed by amateur aurora chasers? “I don’t know,” says Ahrns, “but it is something many of us would like to get to the bottom of!”  For more examples of this mystery in the sky, browse the Proton Arc Photo Gallery.

Realtime Proton Arc Photo Gallery

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

What lies inside Jupiter?

July 5, 2016: Jupiter’s swirling clouds can be seen through any department store telescope. With no more effort than it takes to bend over an eyepiece, you can witness storm systems bigger than Earth navigating ruddy belts that stretch hundreds of thousands of kilometers around Jupiter’s vast equator. It’s fascinating.

It’s also vexing. According to many researchers, the really interesting things–from the roots of monster storms to stores of exotic matter–are located at depth. The clouds themselves hide the greatest mysteries from view.

NASA’s Juno probe, which went into orbit on July 4,2016, could change all that. The goal of the mission is to answer the question, What lies inside Jupiter?

juno crop for ICYMI 160701

“Our knowledge of Jupiter is truly skin deep,” says Juno’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton of the SouthWest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX. “Even the Galileo probe, which dived into the clouds in 1995, penetrated no more than about 0.2% of Jupiter’s radius.”

There are many basic things researchers would like to know—like how far down does the Great Red Spot go? How much water does Jupiter hold? And what is the exotic material near the planet’s core?

Juno will lift the veil without actually diving through the clouds. Bolton explains how: “Swooping as low as 5000 km above the cloudtops, Juno will spend a full year orbiting nearer to Jupiter than any previous spacecraft. The probe’s flight path will cover all latitudes and longitudes, allowing us to fully map Jupiter’s gravitational field and thus figure out how the interior is layered.”

Jupiter is made primarily of hydrogen, but only the outer layers may be in gaseous form. Deep inside Jupiter, researchers believe, high temperatures and crushing pressures transform the gas into an exotic form of matter known as liquid metallic hydrogen–a liquid form of hydrogen akin to the slippery mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer. Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field almost certainly springs from dynamo action inside this vast realm of electrically conducting fluid.

“Juno’s magnetometers will precisely map Jupiter’s magnetic field,” says Bolton. “This will tell us a great deal about the planet’s inner magnetic dynamo and the role liquid metallic hydrogen plays in it.”

diagram of Jupiter's interior.

Juno will also probe Jupiter’s atmosphere using a set of microwave radiometers.

“Our sensors can measure the temperature and water content at depths where the pressure is 50 times greater than what the Galileo probe experienced,” says Bolton.

Jupiter’s water content is of particular interest. There are two leading theories of Jupiter’s origin: One holds that Jupiter formed more or less where it is today, while the other suggests Jupiter formed at greater distances from the sun, later migrating to its current location. (Imagine the havoc a giant planet migrating through the solar system could cause.) The two theories predict different amounts of water in Jupiter’s interior, so Juno should be able to distinguish between them—or rule out both.

Finally, Juno will get a grand view of the most powerful Northern Lights in the Solar System.

“Juno’s polar orbit is ideal for studying Jupiter’s auroras,” explains Bolton. “They are really strong, and we don’t fully understand how they are created.”

Auroras on JupiterUnlike Earth, which lights up in response to solar activity, Jupiter makes its own auroras. The power source is the giant planet’s own rotation. Although Jupiter is ten times wider than Earth, it manages to spin around 2.5 times as fast as our little planet. As any freshman engineering student knows, if you spin a magnet—and Jupiter is a very big magnet—you’ve got an electric generator. Induced electric fields accelerate particles toward Jupiter’s poles where the aurora action takes place. Remarkably, many of the particles that rain down on Jupiter’s poles appear to be ejecta from volcanoes on Io. How this complicated system actually works is a puzzle.

It’s a puzzle that members of the public will witness at close range thanks to JunoCam—a public outreach instrument modeled on the descent camera for Mars rover Curiosity. When Juno swoops low over the cloudtops, JunoCam will go to work, snapping pictures better than the best Hubble images of Jupiter.

“JunoCam will show us what you would see if you were an astronaut orbiting Jupiter,” says Bolton. “I am looking forward to that.”

The Heliophysics Summer School: 10 Years and Counting

Some institutions of cutting-edge learning are very old.  Harvard: 380 years.  Princeton: 270 years. Caltech: 125 years.

Others are a little younger.

This year, academicians around the world are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the “Heliophysics Summer School,” a fresh-faced academy that introduces the next generation of scientists to a field of study that, arguably, didn’t even exist when the new millennium began.

“Heliophysics is something new and exciting,” says Lika Guhathakurta of NASA Headquarters.

“It’s a leap across scientific boundaries,” says Karel Schrijver, formerly of the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory.

“It is a blueprint for the Universe,” says Amitava Bhattacharjee, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.

It begins with Helios, our sun. Of all the objects in the cosmos, the sun affects our planet most. It is the 900lb gorilla of the Solar System, shaping climate, weather, even life itself.

Earth and the sun are deeply and intricately connected, not only by simple rays of light and heat, but also by a complex web of electricity, magnetism, solar wind and extreme ultraviolet radiation.  Lines of electrical current and magnetic force can sometimes be traced, without interruption, all the way from the ground beneath our feet to the base of seething sunspots 93 million miles away.  Our planet and our star are, in a sense, one.

“Back in the early 2000s, NASA had a division called the ‘Sun-Earth connection,’ which recognized this link,” recalls Guhathakurta.  ”When Mike Griffin became the NASA administrator in April of 2005, he asked us to come up with a one-word description of our division that captured both the holistic simplicity and the vast scope of the sun-Earth system. Ultimately it is Sun-Earth connection division director Dick Fisher who is credited with inventing the word ‘heliophysics’.”

Re-naming the “Sun-Earth connection” wasn’t just a marketing ploy, it signaled an authentic shift in thinking about stars and their relationships to planets, moons, asteroids and comets.

“Heliophysics is a unique science,” says George Siscoe of Boston University. “You can see this by realizing that all matter in the universe is organized macroscopically by two long-range forces: gravity and magnetism. As the saying goes, gravity sucks, hence the origin of dense objects like planets, stars, galaxies, etc. But magnetism repels, hence magnetospheres, solar storms, geomagnetic storms, and all large-scale magnetically organized structures in the universe. A very important part of heliophysics is made up of the structures that result when the pull of gravity and the push of magnetism compete.”

Once upon a time, the study of gravity and magnetism were separated by high academic walls.  They had their own textbooks, their own course numbers, and their own professors who rarely talked shop together. Heliophysics breaks down these barriers—and many others.

“In a sense,” says Shrijver, “heliophysics is the equivalent of what ecology is to the life sciences: a discipline that brings awareness of the processes that couple a vast network of conditions into the whole. In order to make heliophysics work as the equivalent of ecology, a sense of community needs to exist: heliophysics is thus also the activity of teaching across traditional discipline boundaries to stimulate the curiosity of one discipline to reach out to the expertise of another.”

Heliophysics plays out on scales ranging from the fusion of subatomic particles taking place in the heart of the sun to the grand sweep of magnetic storms that can engulf entire planets.  It stitches together aspects of weather, climate, plasma physics, Earth science, astronomy, and even biology.  A true heliophysicist is at home discussing all topics, all scales.

Enter the Heliophysics Summer School:

“A new science needs new scientists,” says Guhathakurta, “and 10 years ago we set out to create them. The Heliophysics Summer School was established for this purpose.”

Funded by NASA and managed by UCAR, the first Heliophysics Summer School was convened in July 2007.  The Deans were George Siscoe and Karel Schrijver. During an intense, immersive two-week session, 35 young scientists were instructed by 23 experts in topics ranging from practical techniques in supercomputer modeling to the fundamental physics of magnetic explosions.  Lab sections tested the exhausted but excited students’ mastery of concepts that, heretofore, were rarely discussed in the same room, much less the same lab activity.

Since then hundreds of students from dozens of countries have attended the summer school.  Graduates with extraordinary promise compete for and receive Jack Eddy Fellowships, named after John A “Jack” Eddy, a pioneering researcher in solar physics who shaped thinking about the Sun-Earth connection in the 20th century. These fellowships provide the support they need to continue their studies as heliophysics post-docs at leading Universities.  Later, some Jack Eddy Fellows return to the Heliophysics Summer School as instructors.

“We’ve created a whole heliophysics life cycle,” says Guhathakurta.  “Caterpillars enter the cocoon of the Summer School and emerge as beautiful Heliophysics butterflies.  Jack Eddy Fellows are the Monarchs.”

Not bad for a school that’s only 10 years old…

Stay tuned for the next article in this series: The Heliophysics Textbooks.

Climate Change at the Edge of Space

by Dr. Tony Phillips (

In the summer of 1885, sky watchers around northern Europe noticed something strange. Sunsets weren’t the same any more.  The red and orange colors they were used to seeing were still there—but those familiar colors were increasingly joined by rippling waves of luminous blue.

At first they chalked it up to Krakatoa, which had erupted just two years earlier. The explosion of the Indonesian super volcano hurled massive plumes of ash and dust into the atmosphere more than 50 miles high, coloring sunsets for years after the blast.

Eventually Krakatoa’s ash settled, yet the rippling waves of luminous blue didn’t go away.  Indeed, more than 100 years later, they are shining brighter than ever.

Ruslan-Merzlyakov-2_1465805905_stripAbove: Noctilucent clouds over Nykøbing Mors, Denmark, on June 13, 2016. Photo credit: Ruslan Merzlyakov

Today we call them, “noctilucent clouds” (NLCs). They appear with regularity in summer months, shining against the starry sky at the edge of twilight. Back in the 19th century you had to go to Arctic latitudes to see them. In recent years, however, they have been sighted from backyards as far south as Colorado and Kansas.

Noctilucent clouds are such a mystery that in 2007 NASA launched a spacecraft to study them. The Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite (AIM) is equipped with sensors specifically designed to study the swarms of ice crystals that make up NLCs.  Researchers call these swarms “polar mesospheric clouds” (PMCs).

A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (doi:10.1002/2015JD024439) confirms what some researchers have long suspected:  PMCs in the northern hemisphere have become more frequent and brighter in recent decades—a development that may be related to climate change.

The story begins long before the launch of AIM.

sbuvicemassThe paper’s lead author Mark Hervig, an AIM scientist with GATS, Inc., explains: “Thanks to decades of data from the Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SBUV) instrument on NOAA weather satellites, we know that PMCs have become thicker and more frequent.”

Right: According to data from SBUV, the ice mass of PMCs has increased since 1980.

“The question we’ve been grappling with is why?” says co-author David Siskind of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. “Why did the upper mesosphere (the atmospheric layer where PMCs form) become icier?”

The ingredients for PMCs are simple enough. Ice requires water molecules + freezing temperatures.  However, SBUV could not tell researchers if the mesosphere was getting wetter or colder–or both.

Fortunately, AIM has an instrument onboard named SOFIE that can unravel the water-temperature knot.  Hervig, Siskind, and another co-author, Uwe Berger of the Leibniz-Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Germany, recently interpreted the 36-year SBUV record using data from SOFIE, and this is what they found:

At altitudes where PMCs form, temperatures decreased by 0.5 ±0.2K per decade. At the same time, water vapor increased by 0.07±0.03 ppmv (~1%) per decade.

current_daisyAbove: AIM data taken on June 21, 2016, show noctilucent clouds ringing the north pole.

“These results settle the decades old question of whether or not the observed long-term change in PMCs is an indicator of changing temperature or humidity,” says James Russell, AIM Principal Investigator. “It’s both.”

These results are consistent with a simple model linking PMCs to two greenhouse gases. First, carbon dioxide promotes PMCs by making the mesosphere colder. (While increasing carbon dioxide warms the surface of the Earth, those same molecules refrigerate the upper atmosphere – a yin-yang relationship long known to climate scientists.) Second, methane promotes PMCs by adding moisture to the mesosphere, because rising methane oxidizes into water.

methane_stripAbove: A graphic prepared by Prof. James Russell of Hampton University shows how methane, a greenhouse gas, boosts the abundance of water at the top of Earth’s atmosphere. This water freezes around “meteor smoke” to form icy noctilucent clouds.

However, the simple model may not be enough:

“Our study shows that PMCs may be tied to changes in the temperature of the stratosphere as well,” says Hervig. “This complicates things because the stratosphere is governed by a wide range of phenomena including ozone concentration, greenhouse gases, and volcanic aerosols.

“While we have finally quantified the underlying temperature and water vapor changes related to PMCs,” he adds, “there is still work to be done in understanding the details of what caused these changes.”

Summer is the season for PMCs and noctilucent clouds.  As June turns into July, observers in Europe are already reporting some displays, and they should appear over the northern USA within weeks.

Observing tips: Look west 30 to 60 minutes after sunset when the sun has dipped ~10 degrees below the horizon. If you see blue-white tendrils spreading across the sky, you may have spotted a sign of climate change.  It happens, even at the edge of space.

Earth’s Magnetic Field is Changing

by Dr. Tony Phillips (

Anyone watching a compass needle point steadily north might suppose that Earth’s magnetic field is a constant. It’s not. Researchers have long known that changes are afoot. The north magnetic pole routinely moves, as much as 40 km/yr, causing compass needles to drift over time. Moreover, the global magnetic field has weakened 10% since the 19th century.

A new study by the European Space Agency’s constellation of Swarm satellites reveals that changes may be happening even faster than previously thought. In this map, blue depicts where Earth’s magnetic field is weak and red shows regions where it is strong:

Data from Swarm, combined with observations from the CHAMP and Ørsted satellites, show clearly that the field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has strengthened about 2% over Asia. The region where the field is at its weakest – the South Atlantic Anomaly – has moved steadily westward and weakened further by about 2%. These changes have occured over the relatively brief period between 1999 and mid-2016.

Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar storms and cosmic rays. Less magnetism means more radiation can penetrate our planet’s atmosphere. Indeed, high altitude balloons launched by routinely detect increasing levels of cosmic rays over California. Perhaps the ebbing magnetic field over North America contributes to that trend.

As remarkable as these changes sound, they’re mild compared to what Earth’s magnetic field has done in the past. Sometimes the field completely flips, with north and the south poles swapping places. Such reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. They come at irregular intervals averaging about 300,000 years; the last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.

Swarm is a trio of satellites equipped with vector magnetometers capable of sensing Earth’s magnetic field all the way from orbital altitudes down to the edge of our planet’s core. The constellation is expected to continue operations at least until 2017, and possibly beyond, so stay tuned for updates.

Earth’s Inconstant Magnetic Field

by Dr. Tony Phillips (

Every few years, scientist Larry Newitt of the Geological Survey of Canada goes hunting. He grabs his gloves, parka, a fancy compass, hops on a plane and flies out over the Canadian arctic. Not much stirs among the scattered islands and sea ice, but Newitt’s prey is there–always moving, shifting, elusive.

His quarry is Earth’s north magnetic pole.

At the moment it’s located in northern Canada, about 600 km from the nearest town: Resolute Bay, population 300, where a popular T-shirt reads “Resolute Bay isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” Newitt stops there for snacks and supplies–and refuge when the weather gets bad. “Which is often,” he says.

Scientists have long known that the magnetic pole moves. James Ross located the pole for the first time in 1831 after an exhausting arctic journey during which his ship got stuck in the ice for four years. No one returned until the next century. In 1904, Roald Amundsen found the pole again and discovered that it had moved–at least 50 km since the days of Ross.

The pole kept going during the 20th century, north at an average speed of 10 km per year, lately accelerating “to 40 km per year,” says Newitt. At this rate it will exit North America and reach Siberia in a few decades.

Keeping track of the north magnetic pole is Newitt’s job. “We usually go out and check its location once every few years,” he says. “We’ll have to make more trips now that it is moving so quickly.”

Earth’s magnetic field is changing in other ways, too: Compass needles in Africa, for instance, are drifting about 1 degree per decade. And globally the magnetic field has weakened 10% since the 19th century. When this was mentioned by researchers at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, many newspapers carried the story. A typical headline: “Is Earth’s magnetic field collapsing?”

Probably not. As remarkable as these changes sound, “they’re mild compared to what Earth’s magnetic field has done in the past,” says University of California professor Gary Glatzmaier.

Sometimes the field completely flips. The north and the south poles swap places. Such reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. They come at irregular intervals averaging about 300,000 years; the last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.

see captionLeft: Magnetic stripes around mid-ocean ridges reveal the history of Earth’s magnetic field for millions of years. The study of Earth’s past magnetism is called paleomagnetism. Image credit: USGS. [more]

According to Glatzmaier, the ongoing 10% decline doesn’t mean that a reversal is imminent. “The field is increasing or decreasing all the time,” he says. “We know this from studies of the paleomagnetic record.” Earth’s present-day magnetic field is, in fact, much stronger than normal. The dipole moment, a measure of the intensity of the magnetic field, is now 8 × 1022 amps × m2. That’s twice the million-year average of 4× 1022 amps × m2.

To understand what’s happening, says Glatzmaier, we have to take a trip … to the center of the Earth where the magnetic field is produced.

At the heart of our planet lies a solid iron ball, about as hot as the surface of the sun. Researchers call it “the inner core.” It’s really a world within a world. The inner core is 70% as wide as the moon. It spins at its own rate, as much as 0.2° of longitude per year faster than the Earth above it, and it has its own ocean: a very deep layer of liquid iron known as “the outer core.”

see captionRight: a schematic diagram of Earth’s interior. The outer core is the source of the geomagnetic field.

Earth’s magnetic field comes from this ocean of iron, which is an electrically conducting fluid in constant motion. Sitting atop the hot inner core, the liquid outer core seethes and roils like water in a pan on a hot stove. The outer core also has “hurricanes”–whirlpools powered by the Coriolis forces of Earth’s rotation. These complex motions generate our planet’s magnetism through a process called the dynamo effect.

Using the equations of magnetohydrodynamics, a branch of physics dealing with conducting fluids and magnetic fields, Glatzmaier and colleague Paul Roberts have created a supercomputer model of Earth’s interior. Their software heats the inner core, stirs the metallic ocean above it, then calculates the resulting magnetic field. They run their code for hundreds of thousands of simulated years and watch what happens.

What they see mimics the real Earth: The magnetic field waxes and wanes, poles drift and, occasionally, flip. Change is normal, they’ve learned. And no wonder. The source of the field, the outer core, is itself seething, swirling, turbulent. “It’s chaotic down there,” notes Glatzmaier. The changes we detect on our planet’s surface are a sign of that inner chaos.

They’ve also learned what happens during a magnetic flip. Reversals take a few thousand years to complete, and during that time–contrary to popular belief–the magnetic field does not vanish. “It just gets more complicated,” says Glatzmaier. Magnetic lines of force near Earth’s surface become twisted and tangled, and magnetic poles pop up in unaccustomed places. A south magnetic pole might emerge over Africa, for instance, or a north pole over Tahiti. Weird. But it’s still a planetary magnetic field, and it still protects us from space radiation and solar storms.

And, as a bonus, Tahiti could be a great place to see the Northern Lights. In such a time, Larry Newitt’s job would be different. Instead of shivering in Resolute Bay, he could enjoy the warm South Pacific, hopping from island to island, hunting for magnetic poles while auroras danced overhead.

Sometimes, maybe, a little change can be a good thing.

12-Year Old Invents a New Kind of Space Selfie

by Dr. Tony Phillips (

Last December, Joyce and Tad Lhamon of Seattle, Washington, bought their 12-year-old grandson Barrett a far-out Christmas gift–that is, a trip to the edge of space. In exchange for this gift certificate, Barrett could fly any experiment he wanted to the stratosphere onboard an Earth to Sky Calculus helium balloon. He thought about it for months and, after discarding many ideas, Barrett decided to fly a convex mirror. The payload’s cameras could look into the mirror and take a new kind of “space selfie.” Would it work? On April 17th, we flew Barrett’s experiment, and the results were better than anyone dreamed:


“ and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have flown more than 150 missions to the edge of space monitoring cosmic rays and stress-testing microbes. We’ve never seen our payload quite like this before.

A particularly interesting sequence of images shows the balloon exploding above the payload 117,100 feet above Earth. The following video frames are separated by only 1/30th of a second: #1, #2, #3, #4. Note how the payload remains motionless during the explosion. It takes more than a second for the shock wave from the explosion to propagate down the long cord connecting the payload to the balloon.

Congratulations, Barrett, on a very successful experiment!

The Solar Cycle is Crashing

by Dr. Tony Phillips  of

Anyone wondering why the sun has been so quiet lately? The reason may be found in the graph below. The 11-year sunspot cycle is crashing:

For the past two years, the sunspot number has been dropping as the sun transitions from Solar Max to Solar Min. Fewer sunspots means there are fewer solar flares and fewer coronal mass ejections (CMEs). As these explosions subside, we deem the sun “quiet.”

But how quiet is it, really?

A widely-held misconception is that space weather stalls and becomes uninteresting during periods of low sunspot number. In fact, by turning the solar cycle sideways, we see that Solar Minimum brings many interesting changes. For instance, the upper atmosphere of Earth collapses, allowing space junk to accumulate around our planet. The heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth. And galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system with relative ease. Indeed, a cosmic ray surge is already underway. (Goodbye sunspots, hello deep-space radiation.)

Stay tuned for updates as the sunspot number continues to drop.