Solar storms are simply no longer a threat

The sunspot cycle as of May 2024
The sunspot cycle as of May 2024. Click
for full details.

Today’s Chicken Little Report: When NOAA predicted on May 9, 2024 that a powerful solar flare had erupted from the Sun and was aiming a major solar storm directly at the Earth, the scientists at the federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center could not help underlining the disaster potential, and were ably aided by the mainstream press. This CNN report was typical:

“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” according to the Space Weather Prediction Center. “(The center) has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”

The center has notified operators in these areas to take action to mitigate the potential for any impacts, which include the possibility of increased and more frequent voltage control problems. Other aspects operators will monitor include a chance of anomalies or impacts to satellite operations and frequent or longer periods of GPS degradation.

And as always, the news report has to end with this warning of doom:
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The aurora as seen looking down from space

The aurora over the U.S. on May 11, 2024
Click for original image.

NOAA on May 13, 2024 released a set of eight images taken by its fleet of JPSS weather satellites, showing the strong Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights that were activated over the May 11th weekend due to several very strong solar flares on the Sun and sent a geomagnetic storm at the Earth.

One of those images, reduced to post here, is to the right. You can see the eastern coast of the United States, outlined by city lights, with a band of aurora cutting across the northern half and reaching south below the Great Lakes. The other seven images are available at the link above.

The geomagnetic storm was the strongest produced by the Sun in more than two decades, since 2003. That storm occurred during solar maximum, as did the May 11th this past weekend. However, the Sun experienced another solar maximum in-between, in 2014, which produced few such storms, and none as strong.

I want to add that despite the screams of panic prior to the arrival of this storm, its arrival produced only minor disturbances in the world’s electrical grid, and in fact was proof positive that the many decades of work that electrical companies have devoted to protecting the grid from such storms has paid off. It is very unlikely any major storm from the Sun can harm that grid in the future, unless of course we get lazy and stop maintaining it.

German space plane company completes test program of prototype

The German space plane company Polaris Spaceplanes had now completed a 15-flight test program of the small prototype of its planned orbital and suborbital spaceplane.

The test-flights took place over the course of three days, between Aug. 22 and Sep. 8, and were meant to demonstrate the vehicle’s aerodynamics and flight control systems in preparation for a larger-scale spaceplane prototype the company plans to equip with a linear aerospike rocket engine.

MIRA-Light measures just 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) long, and flies using four electric fans. For 10 of MIRA-Light’s 15 flights, the mini-spaceplane was equipped with a mock aerospike engine to simulate its impact on vehicle performance. In total, the prototype accumulated about 40 total minutes of flight time, according to a report from European Spaceflight.

What makes this project interesting is its use of an aerospike engine, a rocket-engine concept that has been around for decades but never successfully implemented. If successful here, it will make the engines of Polaris’ spaceplane very efficient.

The company now plans a series of test programs using prototypes of increasing size, leading to flying its full-scale hypersonic space plane Aurora on commercial suborbital and orbital flights in ’26 or ’27.

Martian auroras as seen by UAE’s Al-Amal orbiter

Aurora types on Mars
Click for full image.

Using data gathered by the Al-Amal orbiter (“Hope” in English), scientists have identified three types of aurora on Mars. The image to the right, figure 1 from their paper, shows these types, crustal field aurora, patchy aurora, and sinuous aurora. From the abstract:

We categorize discrete auroral patterns into three types: those near strong vertical crustal magnetic field, patchy aurora near very weak crustal fields, and a new type we call “sinuous,” an elongated serpentine structure that stretches thousands of kilometers into the nightside from near midnight in the northern hemisphere.

All three types generally occur during the Martian night, and evolve quickly over periods of less than 45 minutes. The first type, which is generally the brightest, forms over terrain where Mars’ residual magnetic field is strongest and vertically oriented, and was most often seen over the southern cratered highlands centered between the large impact basins Argyre and Hellas. The third type, sinuous aurora, was more unusual:

These we are calling “sinuous discrete aurora,” due to their thin, elongated, and sometimes serpentine shapes. They share several key traits: (a) they appear in the northern hemisphere away from strong crustal fields, (b) they usually connect to the dayside in the far north but also sometimes separately at lower latitudes, (c) they extend for thousands of kilometers into the night side, (d) they appear on both dusk and dawn sides, and (e) their shapes change moderately and brightnesses shift by factors of up to two over timescales of ∼20 min (i.e., the time between swaths, as shown in the differences between Figures 1j and 1k [in the figure above).

The existence of aurora on Mars has been known since the 2000s. These observations however are the first that show more details beyond a fuzzy patch.

Virgin Galactic is replacing its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship

Virgin Galactic yesterday announced that it has hired Aurora, a Boeing subsidiary, to build two new mother ships to to replace WhiteKnightTwo and launch its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space planes.

Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier said: “Our next generation motherships are integral to scaling our operations. They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain and will allow us to fly substantially more missions each year. Supported by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights per year at Spaceport America.” [emphasis mine]

The press release claims the first new mother ship will begin operations in 2025.

Forgive me if I am very very skeptical. The highlighted words tell us a lot about this company. First, we now have confirmation that the company has had problems maintaining WhiteKnightTwo. This fact was strongly implied when all planned flights in ’21 and ’22 were cancelled following that first passenger flight in July ’21 in order to do a full maintenance refit of WhiteKnightTwo. This press release tells us that the company’s management has recognized that WhiteKnightTwo cannot be maintained much longer.

Second, the company continues to overhype its future, even without Richard Branson. The chances of it flying 400 times per year, anytime in the near future, is so slim as to be non-existent.

Third, the need to hire an outside company to build these new mother ships also suggests that Virgin Galactic no longer has the capability of doing it itself.

Right now the company’s stock is selling for about $7 per share, well below its initial price of about $12. Expect it to fall again.

Al-Amal detects Martian aurora

Aurora on Mars

The United Arab Emirates Al-Amal Mars orbiter has detected evidence of a Martian aurora that would be visible at night for short periods.

The ultraviolet images to the right have been reduced slightly to post here.

These three images of atomic oxygen emission at a wavelength of 103.4 nm from the planet Mars were obtained by the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer instrument on 22 April, 23 April, and 06 May 2021 respectively. The full set of data collected during these observations include far and extreme ultraviolet auroral emissions which have never been imaged before at Mars. The beacons of light that stand out against the dark nightside disk are highly structured discrete aurora, which traces out where energetic particles excite the atmosphere after being funneled down by a patchy network of crustal magnetic fields that originate from minerals on the surface of Mars.

Though Mars does not have a magnetic field, it is believed that sections of the planet’s crust are magnetized, and under the right conditions can guide the charged particles from the Sun’s solar wind to the night side to hit the atmosphere where they break up and produce the aurora. Because there is no magnetic field however the particles are not guided by the field lines to the poles, but to different spots at all latitudes, depending on circumstances.

The aurora of Saturn

Cool movie time! Using the Hubble space telescope scientists have compiled an animation showing the changes in Saturn’s north pole aurora over time.

In 2017, over a period of seven months, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope took images of auroras above Saturn’s north pole region using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. The observations were taken before and after the Saturnian northern summer solstice. These conditions provided the best achievable viewing of the northern auroral region for Hubble.

…The images show a rich variety of emissions with highly variable localized features. The variability of the auroras is influenced by both the solar wind and the rapid rotation of Saturn, which lasts only about 11 hours. On top of this, the northern aurora displays two distinct peaks in brightness — at dawn and just before midnight. The latter peak, unreported before, seems specific to the interaction of the solar wind with the magnetosphere at Saturn’s solstice.

The animation of all the images is embedded below. At the link is a second video showing the aurora in close-up

Solar storm activates global aurora on Mars

The strong solar flare that occurred earlier this month was strong enough to activate a global aurora on Mars.

The solar event on Sept. 11, 2017 sparked a global aurora at Mars more than 25 times brighter than any previously seen by the MAVEN orbiter, which has been studying the Martian atmosphere’s interaction with the solar wind since 2014. It produced radiation levels on the surface more than double any previously measured by the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, since that mission’s landing in 2012. The high readings lasted more than two days.

Strangely, it occurred in conjunction with a spate of solar activity during what is usually a quiet period in the Sun’s 11-year sunspot and storm-activity cycle. This event was big enough to be detected at Earth too, even though Earth was on the opposite side of the Sun from Mars.

Hubble images Jupiter and its aurora

Jupiter and its aurora

Cool image time! In anticipation of the arrival of Juno in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, scientists have released a spectacular image of Jupiter and its aurora, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The image on the right has been reduced slightly to fit on the webpage.

The main focus of the imaging is the aurora.

To highlight changes in the auroras, Hubble is observing Jupiter almost daily for several months. Using this series of far-ultraviolet images from Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, it is possible for scientists to create videos that demonstrate the movement of the vivid auroras, which cover areas bigger than the Earth.

Not only are the auroras huge in size, they are also hundreds of times more energetic than auroras on Earth. And, unlike those on Earth, they never cease. While on Earth the most intense auroras are caused by solar storms — when charged particles rain down on the upper atmosphere, excite gases, and cause them to glow red, green, and purple — Jupiter has an additional source for its auroras.

The strong magnetic field of the gas giant grabs charged particles from its surroundings. This includes not only the charged particles within the solar wind, but also the particles thrown into space by its orbiting moon Io, known for its numerous and large volcanos.

I have embedded below the fold one of the videos of the aurora, taken over time by Hubble. Quite amazing.
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The late arrival of Russia’s first private satellite

The competition heats up? The Dnepr rocket launch of 37 satellites yesterday also included the launch of the first private Russian satellite.

TabletSat-Aurura owned by the company SPUTNIX weighs 26.2 kg and is made to operate for one year. It is intended for remote Earth sensing in the interests of a private company. The satellite was made using Russian technologies and a minimum of foreign components. Its cost is about one million US dollars.

Igor Komarov, the head of the United Rocket and Space Corporation, said “the launch of Aurora, the first Russian private satellite, is a successful example of public-private partnership in the field of space exploration as private companies clearly cannot fulfill their strategic tasks without the state. ,,, I am confident that cooperation between the state and private aerospace agencies in designing and manufacturing high-tech craft will become an important stimulus for further development of Russian competitive technologies.”

SPUTNIX Director-General Andrei Potapov said his company’s plans included “creating a cluster of small spacecraft and craft for super high-definition aerial video surveying and imaging with a resolution of down to one meter per pixel”. [emphasis mine]

Why do I have doubts about this Russian achievement? The reasons are twofold.
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Commemorating the victims in Colorado.

Commemorating the victims in Colorado.

I don’t normally report on these violent events. However, I think Malkin’s point here is valid. Too much press has been given the mass murderer in this crime, and not enough for his innocent victims. And in order to understand the truly evil nature of this crime, it is important to know the kind of people this horrible man calmly killed. For example, “6-year-old Veronica Moser identified as Aurora shooting victim; mom in critical condition.”

The biggest solar storm to be aimed at the Earth in seven years is expected to reach us by Tuesday.

The biggest coronal mass ejection to be aimed at the Earth in seven years is expected to reach us by Tuesday.

No need to panic. Not only is the storm still relatively mild compared to past eruptions, the airline and electrical industries are actually well prepared for this event. However, if you want to see the aurora, this will probably be a good opportunity.