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Blog

Weather forecasting and analysis, space and historic events, climate information

Filtering by Category: Space Events

7:15 AM | *Deep solar minimum fast-approaching and cosmic rays continue to rise*

Paul Dorian

The sun continues to be very quiet and it has been without sunspots this year more than half the time as we approach what is likely to be a deep solar minimum. In fact, all indications are that the upcoming solar minimum which is expected to begin later this year may be even quieter than the last one which was the deepest in nearly a century.  Solar cycle 24 has been the weakest sunspot cycle with the fewest sunspots since cycle 14 peaked in February 1906. Solar cycle 24 continues a recent trend of weakening solar cycles which began with solar cycle 21 that peaked around 1980. The last time the sun was this blank in a given year on a percentage basis was 2009 during the last solar minimum when 71% of the time was spotless.  That last solar minimum actually reached a nadir in 2008 when an astounding 73% of the year featured a spotless sun - the most spotless days in a given year since 1913.  One of the natural impacts of decreasing solar activity is the weakening of the ambient solar wind and its magnetic field which, in turn, allows more and more cosmic rays to penetrate the solar system. The intensification of cosmic rays can have important consequences on such things as Earth’s cloud cover and climate, the safety of air travelers and as a possible trigger mechanism for lightning.  

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7:15 AM | *The role of weather in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986*

Paul Dorian

Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster which occurred on January 28, 1986, when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight leading to the deaths of its seven crew members.  STS-51-L was the 25th American Space Shuttle Program flight since the program began in 1981. It was also the first mission to have a civilian on board, American teacher Christa McAuliffe. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:39 EST (16:39 UTC).  According to the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, weather conditions were likely one of the factors that contributed to the incident. Tests conducted during the subsequent investigation showed that O-rings were much less resilient at lower temperatures, but the extreme cold at the Kennedy Space Center was not the only weather factor involved with this tragedy. 

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11:00 AM | *A lunatic’s dream…total lunar eclipse meets supermoon on Sunday night*

Paul Dorian

Actually, you may have to be a lunatic to go out and observe this event on Sunday night as it’ll just be brutally cold throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.  However, if you are so inclined, there will be a total lunar eclipse and supermoon, all wrapped up into one.  The moon, earth and sun will line up late this weekend for the only total lunar eclipse of this year and next.  At the same time, the moon will be ever so closer to Earth and appear slightly bigger and brighter than usual – a supermoon.

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1:00 PM | *For the first time…a landing on the far side of the moon*

Paul Dorian

China has successfully landed a rover on the far side of the moon.  Up until now, no nation had ever landed a lunar lander on the far side of the moon, a mission complicated by the fact that the moon blocks direct communications with Earth. The lunar probe known as Chang’e-4 touched down early Thursday (Beijing time) in the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole Aitken Basin.  This particular crater is the largest, deepest and oldest known crater in the solar system.

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11:00 AM | *Green "Christmas Comet" makes its closest approach to Earth…better viewing opportunities next couple of nights following numerous recent cloudy nights*

Paul Dorian

Comet 46P/Wirtanen made history on Sunday, December 16th as it entered the “top 10” list of closest comet flybys to Earth in recent history.  The comet now being called the green “Christmas comet” flew past Earth at about 11.5 million km away on Sunday appearing in the constellation Taurus alongside the Pleiades cluster of stars.  This is the closest the comet has come to Earth in many centuries and the closest it will come for many more centuries. The Mid-Atlantic region has been socked in thick cloud cover for the past several nights, but there is a 50/50 chance for more favorable viewing conditions tonight and even better shot tomorrow night. There is one caveat, however, and that is the fact that the waxing moon will generate quite a bit of moonlight during the next few nights and that may act to dilute somewhat the comet’s brightness.

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8:00 AM | *Comet 46P/Wirtanen makes its closest approach to Earth in just ten days*

Paul Dorian

On December 16th, less than four days after making its closest approach to the sun, Comet 46P/Wirtanen will come within 11.5 million kilometers of the Earth making it one of the ten closest approaching comets since 1950 and the 20th closest approach of a comet dating as far back as the ninth century A.D.  While it is a small comet with a nucleus barely 1 km wide, this close proximity should make it appear as bright as third magnitude which is bright enough to be viewed with the unaided eye. In fact, recent photos of the comet indicate that the comet’s gaseous atmosphere is now about as wide as a full moon.

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3:50 PM | *”Seven minutes of terror” on Monday afternoon as NASA spacecraft are set to land on Mars and the landing will be televised*

Paul Dorian

Landing on Mars is no easy feat. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the latest NASA probe set to land on Mars--or disintegrate in the attempt.  On Monday afternoon, it will tear through the planet's very thin atmosphere in a fireball, shedding more than 12,000 mph of velocity in just under 7 minutes. The interminable stretch from the moment a spacecraft hits the Martian atmosphere to the second it touches down on the Red Planet’s rusty surface, is what scientists call “the seven minutes of terror". In addition, for the first time ever, tiny cubesats are approaching Mars and will be released by the lander. The two tiny spacecraft are officially known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B and they will watch NASA's InSight lander touchdown on the Red Planet relaying updates to Earth in near-real time. If successful, the MarCOs could represent a new kind of communication capability to Earth. They were launched alongside the lander on May 5, 2018. 

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8:00 AM | *Earth’s upper atmosphere cooling off dramatically and cosmic rays continue to increase as deep solar minimum approaches*

Paul Dorian

The sun is blank again today and has been without sunspots about 60% of the time this year as the current historically weak solar cycle heads towards the next solar minimum. Solar cycle 24 is currently on pace to be the weakest sunspot cycle with the fewest sunspots since cycle 14 peaked in February 1906. Solar cycle 24 continues a recent trend of weakening solar cycles which began with solar cycle 21 that peaked around 1980. The last time the sun was this blank in a given year on a percentage basis was 2009 during the last solar minimum when 71% of the time was spotless. That last solar minimum actually reached a nadir in 2008 when an astounding 73% of the year featured a spotless sun - the most spotless days in a given year since 1913. All indications are that the fast-approaching next solar minimum may be even quieter than the last one which was the deepest in nearly a century.

One of the natural consequences of a solar minimum is for the upper part of the Earth’s atmosphere to cool down. Another natural impact of decreasing solar activity is the weakening of the ambient solar wind and its magnetic field which, in turn, allows more cosmic rays to penetrate the solar system. The intensification of cosmic rays can have important consequences on such things as the safety of airline passengers and astronauts in space, Earth’s cloud cover and climate, and possibly even on lightning.

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8:00 AM | *The fast approaching solar minimum and its potential impact on the upcoming winter season*

Paul Dorian

In the long term, the sun is the main driver of all weather and climate and multi-decadal trends in solar activity can have major impacts on oceanic and atmospheric temperatures. In addition, empirical observations have shown that the sun can have important ramifications on weather and climate on shorter time scales including those associated with the average solar cycle of around 11-years. For example, there is evidence that low solar activity during solar minimum years tend to be well-correlated with more frequent “high-latitude blocking” events compared to normal and this type of atmospheric phenomenon can play an important role in the winter season.

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1:10 PM | *The “comet of the year” to come just in time for the holidays*

Paul Dorian

Some astronomers are calling Comet 46P/Wirtanen the “comet of the year” and it is to arrive just in time for the holidays.  Around the middle of December, Comet 46P/Wirtanen will come within 11.5 million kilometers of the Earth making it one of the ten closest approaching comets of the Space Age according to spaceweather.com.  This comet is likely to be visible to the naked eye for several weeks right through the holiday season and into early 2019.

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