Cosmic Rays are Intensifying

For the past year, neutron monitors around the Arctic Circle have sensed an increasing intensity of cosmic rays. Polar latitudes are a good place to make such measurements, because Earth’s magnetic field funnels and concentrates cosmic radiation there. Turns out, Earth’s poles aren’t the only place cosmic rays are intensifying. Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been launching helium balloons to the stratosphere to measure radiation, and they find the same trend over California:

In the plot, neutron monitor measurements from the University of Oulu Cosmic Ray Station are traced in red; gamma-ray/X-ray measurements over California are denoted in gray. The agreement between the two curves is remarkable. It means that the intensification of cosmic rays is making itself felt not only over the poles, but also over lower latitudes where Earth’s magnetic field provides a greater degree of protection against deep space radiation.

Cosmic rays, which are accelerated toward Earth by distant supernova explosions and other violent events, are an important form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Indeed, our measurements show that someone flying back and forth across the continental USA, just once, can absorb as much ionizing cosmic radiation as 2 to 5 dental X-rays. Likewise, cosmic rays can affect mountain climbers, high-altitude drones, and astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

This type of radiation is modulated by solar activity. Solar storms and CMEs tend to sweep aside cosmic rays, making it more difficult for cosmic rays to reach Earth. On the other hand, low solar activity allows an extra dose of cosmic rays to reach our planet. Indeed, the ongoing increase in cosmic ray intensity is probably due to a decline in the solar cycle. Solar Maximum has passed and we are heading toward a new Solar Minimum. Forecasters expect solar activity to drop sharply in the years ahead, and cosmic rays are poised to increase accordingly. Stay tuned for more radiation.

Solar Eclipse Balloon Network

Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have developed a balloon payload that can photograph solar eclipses from the stratosphere. This sets the stage for a one-of-a-kind photography experiment: On August 21, 2017, the Moon will pass in front of the sun over the USA, producing a total eclipse visible from coast to coast. We will launch balloons to record the event from a dozen points along the path of totality:

Floating more than 100,000 feet above the clouds, the balloons will have an unobstructed view of the eclipse. From each of a dozen payloads, one camera will point up to record the sun’s ghostly corona while another camera points down to record the passage of the Moon’s dark shadow across the landscape below. When the eclipse is finished, we will combine the footage to create a unique video portrait of an eclipse sweeping across the American continent.

The payload has already photographed a partial solar eclipse in Oct. 2014: images. To test the payload under conditions of totality, a team of students and parents from Earth to Sky Calculus will travel to Indonesia six weeks from now to observe the March 9, 2016, total eclipse: animated map. Stay tuned for news from their expedition!

Readers, would you like to join the Solar Eclipse Balloon Network? Starting now we are recruiting teams of citizen scientists who we will train in the art of high-altitude ballooning to become members of the solar eclipse launch crews. Schools, scout troops, home school families and others are welcome to apply. This is a great way for novices to learn ballooning and to participate in authentic science. We will also be seeking sponsors for the 12 payloads. Contact Dr. Tony Phillips to register your interest.