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Blog

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

Filtering by Category: Space Events

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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8:00 AM | *This kind of solar storm could be devastating in today’s world…the "Carrington Event" of 1859*

Paul Dorian

The sun has been relatively quiet in recent years and the current solar cycle (#24) is actually on pace to be the weakest in over one hundred years. Even weak solar cycles, however, can produce significant solar storms. In fact, it was this same time of year back in 1859 when a super solar storm - now known as the “Carrington Event” - took place during another weak solar cycle (#10).  The event has been named for the British astronomer, Richard Carrington, as he observed from his own private observatory the largest solar flare which caused a major coronal mass ejection (CME) to travel directly toward Earth.  Fortunately, solar storms of this magnitude are quite rare as it would very likely have a much more damaging impact on today’s world than it did in the 19th century.  

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8:00 AM | *Almost a year has passed since the “Great American Solar Eclipse” and there are some important preliminary findings…another opportunity comes in 2024*

Paul Dorian

It was just about one year ago when America went crazy for the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse on US soil since 1918 and it provided a great opportunity for scientists.  Next week marks the one-year anniversary of what was referred to as “The Great American Solar Eclipse” as on August 21st, 2017, the moon passed between the sun and earth and the result was a 67-mile wide shadow that crossed the country from Oregon-to-South Carolina.  Total solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth every year or so, but generally cast their shadows over oceans or remote land masses.  If you missed last year’s total solar eclipse or it turned out to be cloudy in your area then there will be another opportunity in the not-too-distant future during April 2024.

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9:50 AM | *It was during the height of the Cold War and a solar storm nearly sparked a nuclear war*

Paul Dorian

It was during the height of the Cold War and a powerful solar storm could have led to a disastrous military conflict between the US and Soviet Union if not for the early efforts of the US Air Force to monitor solar activity. On May 23rd, 1967, a solar storm took place that was so powerful, it jammed radar and radio communications in polar regions and the US Air Force actually began to prepare aircraft for war thinking the nation’s surveillance radars were being jammed by the Soviet Union. Fortunately, space weather forecasters in the military suspected there might be another cause and they relayed information about the possibility that a solar storm could have been the reason for the disrupted radar and radio communications.  As it turned out, this information was enough to keep the planes on the ground and the US avoided a potential nuclear weapon exchange with the Soviet Union.

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