Earth Weather / Space Weather

Five Bright Planets in One Night!

By: Susie77, 8:31 PM GMT on February 29, 2012

See 5 Bright Planets in Night Sky—First Time in 8 Years
Find out when and where to see naked-eye objects this week.

A diagram shows where bright objects can be seen in the night sky.

An illustration shows where to spot bright planets in this week's night sky.Diagrams courtesy Sky & Telescope

Andrew Fazekas

for National Geographic NewsPublished February 28, 2012

For the first time in almost a decade, sky-watchers this week will be able to see all five naked-eye planets over the course of one night for several nights in a row.The
classical naked-eye planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and
Saturn—can be seen easily without optical aids and so have been known
since ancient times.But the quintet hasn't appeared together during a single night since 2004.What's
more, this week's parade of planets will be joined in the nighttime
skies by the waxing crescent to waxing gibbous moon and the superbright stars Sirius and Canopus.(Related: "New Comet Found; May Be Visible From Earth in 2013.")"Although
being able to see these objects simultaneously doesn't have any
scientific value as such, it is a really fun opportunity to get a sense
of how we fit in the universe," said Geza Gyuk, an astronomer with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago."It is a bit like looking at an astronomy class in a nutshell."Best Views for Cosmic ParadeAlthough
the moon and the seven bright objects will all be visible in one
night, they won't all appear at the same time or in the same region of
the sky.The best time to catch sight of the cosmic parade will
be between February 28 and March 7. This is when the more elusive
planets Mercury and Mars will be at their brightest in the evening sky
for 2012, and when the moon will be above the horizon for many hours
before setting.Just after local sunset, Mercury will be low in the west and rusty-colored Mars will start to rise in the east.Catching
Mercury in particular is notoriously difficult, Gyuk said, because the
tiny world is the closest to the sun and so never appears very far
above the nighttime horizon.(Also see "NASA's First Pictures of Mercury Taken From Orbit.")The best way to find Mercury with the naked eye will be to first identify the superbright planets Jupiter and Venus, which will appear in the southwest about 30 minutes after local sunset."Follow the line connecting Jupiter to Venus below right, and continue on until you almost reach the horizon," Gyuk said."Mercury
will be in this vicinity and should be fairly bright in binoculars,
but will be getting dimmer and harder to locate as the days of early
March progress."Saturn—which looks like a bright, yellowish star—will rise near local midnight in the east.According
to Gyuk, the best place to view the sky show will be from either a
large field or the top of a hill with eastern, western, and southern
views.Full Show a Limited-Time OfferSirius
and Canopus are the brightest stars visible any time year-round, but
this week they'll be at their highest in the sky for 2012 soon after
local dusk sets in.Located just under nine light-years away,
Sirius is the brightest star we can see from Earth and the lead star in
the constellation Canis Major, the mythical "big dog" that shines high
in the Northern Hemisphere's winter sky.Canopus, the second
brightest star in the sky, is part of the southern constellation
Carina, the keel of the mythological ship the Argo. (Related: "'Light Echoes' From Monster Star's Eruption Found—A First.")While
Sirius is visible from all mid-latitude regions, Canopus—to the lower
right of Sirius—can be seen only by observers in more southerly
latitudes, for instance, below Los Angeles and Atlanta.The
northern limit for viewing the other six bright objects this week is
around the Arctic Circle, beyond which Sirius is invisible. The southern
limit is around the Equator, beyond which it becomes very difficult to
spot Mercury."The moon, of course, is our closest cosmic
neighbor and the only one we can really study as a world with the naked
eye or even simple binoculars," Gyuk added. (Related: "New Scars Found on Moon, Hint at 'Recent' Tectonic Activity.")"However
these other points of light are all really bright objects in the sky
too, so to get the full experience, take your time and let your eyes
adapt to the darkness and enjoy."

Mars Rover Hit by Radiation Storm

By: Susie77, 5:19 PM GMT on February 24, 2012

Curiosity, the Stunt Double

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Feb. 24, 2012:

With a pair of bug-eyes swiveling on a stalk nearly 8 feet off the
ground, the 6-wheeled, 1800-lb Mars rover Curiosity doesn’t look much like a human being.  Yet, right now, the mini-Cooper-sized rover is playing the role of stunt double for NASA astronauts.

“Curiosity is riding to Mars in the belly of a spacecraft, where
an astronaut would be,” explains Don Hassler of the Southwest Research
Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  “This means the rover experiences
deep-space radiation storms in the same way that a real astronaut

Stunt Double (splash)
Curiosity doesn't look much like a human being, but the rover
turns out to be an excellent stunt double for real astronauts. [video]

Indeed, on Jan. 27th, 2012, Curiosity’s spacecraft was
hit by the most intense solar radiation storm since 2005.   The event
began when sunspot AR1402 produced an X2-class solar flare. (On the
“Richter Scale of Solar Flares,” X-flares are the most powerful kind.) 
The explosion accelerated a fusillade of protons and electrons to nearly
light speed; these subatomic bullets were guided by the sun’s magnetic
field almost directly toward Curiosity.

When the particles hit the outer walls of the spacecraft, they
shattered other atoms and molecules in their path, producing a secondary
spray of radiation that Curiosity both absorbed and measured.

“Curiosity was in no danger,” says Hassler.  “In fact, we intended
all along for the rover to experience these storms en route to Mars.”
Curiosity and the Solar Storm (rad, 200px)
A photo of the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) in the laboratory. [more]

Unlike previous Mars rovers, Curiosity is equipped with a
Radiation Assessment Detector.  The instrument, nicknamed “RAD,” counts
cosmic rays, neutrons, protons and other particles over a wide range of
biologically-interesting energies. RAD’s prime mission is to investigate
the radiation environment on the surface of Mars, but researchers have
turned it on early so that it can also probe the radiation environment on the way to Mars as well.

Curiosity’s location inside the spacecraft is key to the experiment.

“We have a pretty good idea what the radiation environment is like
outside,” says Hassler, who is the principal investigator for RAD. 
“Inside the spacecraft, however, is still a mystery.”

Even supercomputers have trouble calculating exactly what happens
when high-energy cosmic rays and solar energetic particles hit the walls
of a spacecraft.  One particle hits another; fragments fly; the
fragments themselves crash into other molecules.

“It’s very complicated.  Curiosity is giving us a chance to actually measure what happens.”

Even when the sun is quiet, Curiosity is bombarded by a slow
drizzle of cosmic rays—high-energy particles accelerated by distant
black holes and supernova explosions.  In the aftermath of the Jan. 27th
X-flare, RAD detected a surge of particles several times more numerous
than the usual cosmic ray counts. Hassler’s team is still analyzing the
data to understand what it is telling them about the response of the
spacecraft to the storm.

More X-flares will help by adding to the data set. Hassler expects
the sun to cooperate, because the solar cycle is trending upward toward
a maximum expected in early 2013.

As of February 2012, “we still have 6 months to go before we reach Mars.  That’s plenty of time for more solar storms.”

A stunt double’s work is never done.

Real Space Balls

By: Susie77, 5:38 PM GMT on February 22, 2012

NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space07.22.10


Space Balls

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has at last found buckyballs in space, as
illustrated by this artist's conception showing the carbon balls coming
out from the type of object where they were discovered. Image credit:

› Full image and caption

› See 'Buckyballs Jiggle Like Jello' animation

› See 'Mini Soccer Balls in Space' animation

These data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the signatures of buckyballs in space.

These data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the signatures of
buckyballs in space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of
Western Ontario

› Full image and caption

PASADENA, Calif. -- Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
have discovered carbon molecules, known as "buckyballs," in space for
the first time. Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were
first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller's
geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a
partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but
had escaped detection until now.

"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space,"
said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada,
and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We are particularly
excited because they have unique properties that make them important
players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in
space." Cami has authored a paper about the discovery that will appear
online Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional,
spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and
pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team
also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70,
for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms
and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules
belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula
named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like the sun,
that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A compact, hot
star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula illuminates and heats
these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short
stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in
carbon. The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to
analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral
signatures of the buckyballs. These molecules are approximately room
temperature -- the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of
infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer
looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the
buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

"We did not plan for this discovery," Cami said. "But when we saw these
whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking
at one of the most sought-after molecules."

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of
buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985.
Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging,
carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected.
Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large
quantities of buckminsterfullerenes. The molecules have since been found
on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

The study of fullerenes and their relatives has grown into a busy field
of research because of the molecules' unique strength and exceptional
chemical and physical properties. Among the potential applications are
armor, drug delivery and superconducting technologies.

Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob
Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, "This most
exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball
has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark
recesses of our galaxy."

Previous searches for buckyballs in space, in particular around
carbon-rich stars, proved unsuccessful. A promising case for their
presence in the tenuous clouds between the stars was presented 15 years
ago, using observations at optical wavelengths. That finding is awaiting
confirmation from laboratory data. More recently, another Spitzer team
reported evidence for buckyballs in a different type of object, but the
spectral signatures they observed were partly contaminated by other
chemical substances.

For more information about Spitzer, visit: .

An Alignment of Planets in the Sunset Sky

By: Susie77, 2:02 PM GMT on February 20, 2012

Cold and Spellbinding: An Alignment of Planets in the Sunset Sky

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Feb. 17, 2012: 
Note to sky watchers: Put on your winter coats. What you’re about to
read might make you feel an uncontrollable urge to dash outside.

The brightest planets in the solar system are lining up in the
evening sky, and you can see the formation—some of it at least—tonight. 

Go out at sunset and look west.  Venus and Jupiter pop out of the
twilight even before the sky fades completely black.  The two brilliant
planets surrounded by evening blue is a beautiful sight.
Cold and Spellbinding (splash, no arrow)
Amateur astronomer Göran Strand photographed Venus and Jupiter converging over Frösön, Sweden, on Feb.12, 2012. [video]

If you go out at the same time tomorrow, the view improves,
because Venus and Jupiter are converging.  In mid-February they are
about 20 degrees apart.  By the end of the month, the angle narrows to
only 10 degrees—so close that you can hide them together behind your
outstretched palm.  Their combined beauty grows each night as the
distance between them shrinks.

A special night to look is Saturday, Feb. 25th, when the crescent Moon moves in to form a slender heavenly triangle with Venus, Jupiter and the Moon as vertices (sky map).  One night later, on Sunday, Feb. 26th, it happens again (sky map).
This arrangement will be visible all around the world, from city and
countryside alike.  The Moon, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest
objects in the night sky; together they can shine through urban lights,
fog, and even some clouds.
Alien Matter (signup)
After hopping from Venus to Jupiter in late February, the Moon exits stage left, but the show is far from over.

In March, Venus and Jupiter continue their relentless convergence until, on March 12th and 13th, the duo lie only three degrees apart—a spectacular double beacon in the sunset sky (sky map).  Now you’ll be able to hide them together behind a pair of outstretched fingertips. 

There’s something mesmerizing about stars and planets bunched
together in this way—and, no, you’re not imagining things when it
happens to you.  The phenomenon is based on the anatomy of the human
Cold and Spellbinding (fovea)
The fovea is responsible for our central, sharpest vision. [more]

"Your eye is a bit like a digital camera," explains optometrist
Dr. Stuart Hiroyasu of Bishop, California. "There's a lens in front to
focus the light, and a photo-array behind the lens to capture the image.
The photo-array in your eye is called the retina. It's made of rods and
cones, the organic equivalent of electronic pixels."

There’s a tiny patch of tissue near the center of the retina where
cones are extra-densely packed. This is called “the fovea.”

"Whatever you see with the fovea, you see in high-definition,"
Hiroyasu says. The fovea is critical to reading, driving, watching
television. The fovea has the brain's attention.

The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide.
Most nights in March, Venus and Jupiter will fit within that narrow
cone.  And when they do—presto!  It’s spellbinding astronomy.

Standing outdoors, mesmerized by planets aligned in a late winter
sunset, you might just forget how cold you feel.  Bring a coat anyway….

Author:Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Europe Hammered by Winter; is North America Next?

By: Susie77, 8:02 PM GMT on February 16, 2012

Europe Hammered by Winter, Is North America Next?

Feb 16, 2012: For the first half of this year's winter, the big news was warm temperatures and lack of snow. Ski resorts were covered in bare dirt, while January temperatures in southern California topped July highs.

Then, out of the blue, Europe got clobbered: Over the past two
weeks, temperatures in Eastern Europe have nose-dived to -30 degrees
Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Blizzards and the bone-chilling cold
have resulted in the deaths of over 550 people so far, with rooftop-high
snow drifts trapping tens of thousands of villagers in their homes and
cutting off access to entire towns. It has even snowed as far south as
North Africa.
Europe Hammered (splash)
This map shows temperature anomalies for Europe and western
Russia from January 25 to February 1, 2012, compared to temperatures for
the same dates from 2001 to 2011. The anomalies are based on land
surface temperatures observed by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra
satellite. [more]

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
explains what happened: "A couple of weeks ago, Mother Nature did an
about face. The tight polar vortex that had bottled up the cold arctic
air in the beginning of winter suddenly weakened. Cold air swept out of
Siberia and invaded Europe and the Far East."

The "tight polar vortex" is caused by the Arctic Oscillation (AO),
a see-sawing pressure difference between the Arctic and lower
latitudes. When the pressure difference is high, a whirlpool of air
forms around the North Pole. That’s what happened earlier this winter:
the whirlpool was more forceful, corralling the cold air and keeping it
nearer the pole.
Europe Hammered (ao, 200px)
An artist's concept of the Arctic Oscillation in its negative phase. [more] [video]

Now the vortex is weakening. With "the AO Index going negative,"
as an expert or weather-nerd might put it, cold air escapes from that
whirlpool and heads southward, resulting in the killing extremes now
plaguing the other half of the planet.

However, even the breakdown of the vortex cannot completely
account for the severity of the winter Europe is suddenly experiencing.
As strange as it sounds, some climatologists, among them Judah Cohen of
Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Massachusetts, attribute the
unusual cold to global warming. Cohen contends that since sea ice is
being melted by warmer temperatures in the Arctic, more moisture is
available for the atmosphere to pick up – and drop as snow. As a result,
Siberian snow cover has increased, and this snow cover has a cooling
effect which reaches East Asia and Europe.

"Cohen's research is cutting edge and could bring important
improvements to forecasting climate and weather over North America and
Europe," says Patzert. "Cohen and others are on the threshold of
understanding of how climate change affects the behavior of the Arctic

Patzert adds, however, that this winter is just one of many severe
winters that have changed European history. "Looking back, Mother
Nature has taken us on some very wild rides."

He cites the winter of 1683/84, when the Thames River in England
stayed frozen with a thick layer of ice for nearly two months, as an
Europe Hammered (Napoleon, 200px)
If only Napolean had a weather satellite.... [more]

"And let’s not forget the frigid winter of 1812, when Napoleon's
Grande Armee was decimated by the extreme cold in Western Russia."

Patzert notes that European history would have been much different
if Napoleon had had a good meteorologist on his staff and some NASA
satellites to warn him about what he was marching into.

"And the turning point of World War II occurred in 1941, when Germany’s forces were nearly frozen in place," he adds.

There are many other examples2, and climate change can't be blamed for all of them.

"There's always going to be some natural variability. Every
episode of high temperatures or extreme cold isn't climate change.
Sometimes it's just weather!"

The weakening Arctic Oscillation could soon bring a return of
winter to North America as well, although Patzert doesn't expect it to
be as severe as what's happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Is there any relief in sight for Europe?

"The good news is that this crippling cold snap arrived
mid-winter. With the vernal equinox less than six weeks away, this AO
episode will become muted – hopefully."

Hang on till Spring."

Author: Dauna Coulter | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Budget Cuts for NASA :(

By: Susie77, 3:58 PM GMT on February 13, 2012

What happens when we fight two unnecessary and unfunded wars, while lowering taxes for the wealthy at the same time. :(


U.S. President Barack Obama will ask Congress for $17.7 billion for
NASA for 2013, an amount that would leave the agency funded at its
lowest level in four years, according to sources familiar with the
forthcoming budget proposal.

NASA’s planetary science division would shoulder a heavy share of the cut. Under the president’s proposal, its budget would drop from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, a 20 percent reduction.

Due on Capitol Hill Feb. 13, the $17.7 billion NASA budget proposal
represents only a slight reduction from the $17.8 billion Congress approved in November
for 2012. But compared to the $18.7 billion Obama penciled in for 2013
in the five-year budget he sent Congress this time last year, it
represents a 5 percent cut.

Things could have been worse. According to a source familiar with the
Obama administration’s internal budget deliberations, the White House
Office of Management and Budget asked the agency last fall to submit
budget proposals for three scenarios: a 5 percent cut, a 10 percent cut
and a 15 percent cut, relative to the outyear spending plan submitted
last year. [Photos: President Obama and NASA]

With no top line budget relief, the cost overruns on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope
weighed heavily on the agency’s planetary science division, sources
said. News of the 20-percent cut was first reported Feb. 8 by The Washington Post. A spate of news stories about the deep cuts in store for NASA’s popular robotic Mars exploration program followed.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a House Appropriations Committee member
whose Pasadena, Calif., district is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, which specializes in executing planetary missions, issued
the following statement Feb. 9 following a meeting with NASA
Administrator Charles Bolden: "As I told the Administrator during our
meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in
my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in
space exploration."

Meanwhile, late Feb. 9, the White House directed federal agencies,
including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, to cancel embargoed budget
briefings with reporters that had been scheduled for Feb. 10.
Administration sources said the White House did not give agencies a
reason for canceling the briefings.

Budget briefings planned for today (Feb. 13) — many of them to be televised or webcast — are still going forward.

NASA is scheduled to roll out its budget in a televised briefing from
the agency’s headquarters here at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT), the same time
the Air Force is scheduled to brief reporters at the Pentagon on its
2013 spending proposal.

This article was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.


By: Susie77, 10:33 PM GMT on February 12, 2012

Yay for us! We finally got some reasonable cold temps (in the teens last night) and snow is predicted for tomorrow!

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.