Space Weather

Its spring in Rochester, but fall on Saturn’s moon, Titan

Here in Rochester, it is easy to lament the long transition from winter into summer. Not only long, but inconstant and subject to depressing changes that leave us shivering in our spring clothing. Still, as seasonal changes go, one can hardly compare our Earth’s cycle to that of the Saturnian moon Titan, where the change takes seven years.

Scientists studying Titan have observed an ice cloud that hovers over Titan’s northern hemisphere for some time. But as the seasons change on Titan and the wind patterns begin to shift, that ice cloud has shifted southward in a process similar to Earth’s own Hadley cell. This seasonal change on Earth is closely associated with our jet streams:

 At first blush, the southern ice cloud seems to be building rapidly. The northern ice cloud, on the other hand, was present when Cassini first arrived and has been slowly fading the entire time the spacecraft has been observing it.

So far, the identity of the ice in these clouds has eluded scientists, though they have ruled out simple chemicals, such as methane, ethane and hydrogen cyanide, which are typically associated with Titan. One possibility is that “species X,” as some team members call the ice, could be a mixture of organic compounds.

So there you have it: Rochester weather may be cold and damp when we least like it, but at least we have a 365 day cycle. And that’s not nothin’…

Journalism Space Porn Space Weather

Do we really need to waste resources looking for meteors?

It is nearly impossible to stop paying attention to scary things, once they’re revealed. And in a click-hungry Internet media landscape (hey: guilty as charged), it is even harder not to want to write articles that you know are going to get clicks, even if they aren’t the most reputable or useful content.

So now that we’ve had our meteor visit in Russia and lots of “near misses” by other space debris – including one that came closer to us than our own satellites – it is easy to spend a lot of time and energy on these types of things. Why not? It is both scary and awe-inspiring to think of things unknown to us floating in space on a collision course with our Earth:

Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, thinks we can do something about that. Hubbard, a former director of NASA Ames Research Center, is also the program architect for the B612 Foundation, which aims to track down the hundreds of thousands of unknown asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the Big Bang never stopped and the placid, gently floating galaxy you saw in Discovery Channel documentaries simply doesn’t exist. The universe is a dynamic, ongoing explosion, filled with lots of gas, lots of planets, lots of stars and yes, lots and lots of debris. The Earth itself is orbiting the Sun at a rate of approximately 67k miles an hour, which is itself rotating around the Milky Way at an estimated 8,700 miles per hour.

Basically, you’ve got a lot of crap spinning at a super-high rate of speed around a lot of other crap. And with more than a little regularity, some crap collides with other crap and you get a giant, intergalactic crap explosion. Bigger the crap, bigger the explosion.

And as pitifully expendable sacs of protoplasm stuck on Earth, we worry that even a small bit of debris could end us.

Galactically speaking, not an unreasonable concern. But what happened in Russia – and the media frenzy that ensued – is evidence not of our vulnerability, but of the extraordinary rareness of such events on a human scale. Debris hits our planet with perhaps disconcerting regularity, but does so completely unnoticed most of the time. That’s because not all space debris is measured in bus or football field lengths. And those large objects that do occasionally hit our planet happen on a regular albeit slow schedule, without wiping out life on Earth, let alone the Earth herself.

Sure. A city the size of San Francisco could suddenly cease to be. But hey! As long as you’re not there, you can say you “remember them when.”

The truth is that as dynamic and violent as our universe is, it is also quite big. And collisions with our Earth of the type we worry about are extremely rare. So I would hold off on that shooting spree you’ve been contemplating: there’s every reason to believe you’ll still be here to pay the piper.

Space Weather Weather Science

There is no life on Earth’s evil twin.

The conflict between good and evil is a concept that stems from an ancient myth thousands of years ago. However, long before this idea was conceptualized, the battle between good and evil existed on a planetary scale.

In our galaxy (the Milky Way), all eight planets have unique size, characteristics and appearance. However, even though these eight planets have such distinct features, there are two planets known as twins. With luscious vegetation and more than half of the planet covered with water, Earth is the ideal planet for all living organisms. On the other hand, the planet that is strikingly similar to Earth in size, mass and composition, Venus, has temperatures upwards of 1000°F and an atmosphere 100 times thicker than Earth’s. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the planet known as the “Morning Star” is commonly referred to as Earth’s evil twin.

The Amazon in Space?

Venus’ composition and weather is a fairly new understanding though, as many scientists actually believed Earth’s evil twin possibly could have similar weather and surface features to our planet. This idea stemmed from the fact that Venus is essentially covered in clouds. Since clouds on Earth are composed of water vapor, researchers believed that there must be some sort of tropical “paradise” like lush rainforests or jungles encompassing Venus. However, this ideology came to an abrupt end when scientists learned of the hellish-hot temperatures on Venus.   To accompany these temperatures, the clouds on Venus are composed of drops of sulfuric acid.

Composition of Venus’s Bizarre Clouds

Scientists believe there are a couple of ways these sulfuric acid clouds formed. One is that these clouds were actually formed by early volcanic activity that released sulfur into the atmosphere and trapped it in the clouds. The sulfur was able to melt in the atmosphere since the melting point of sulfur is 386K and the surface temperature on Venus is about 750K. The other way is through photo dissociation (breakup) of carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and atomic oxygen. Since atomic oxygen is highly reactive, when it reacts with sulfur dioxide, it results in sulfur trioxide, which can combine with water vapor to create sulfuric acid.

Although these clouds have a much different composition than water vapor clouds on Earth, the sulfuric acid clouds surrounding Venus do precipitate. Sulfuric rain falls from the atmosphere of Venus, however does not reach the surface due to the extreme heat that evaporates the rain and forms clouds again. This sulfuric rain is much different from acidic rain on Earth since Earth’s acid rain is water with small amounts of sulfuric and nitric acid and Venus’s acidic rain is composed entirely of sulfuric acid.

Due to its extremely close proximity to the sun and interesting atmospheric features, Venus’s weather has been long debated among scientists. But since we now know Earth has an evil sibling, it’s fair to say we lucked out.

Space Weather

Why Earth’s rotation makes Jupiter’s Red Spot impossible here.

Did you actually think Sandy, Andrew even Katrina were bad? These hurricanes that caused widespread destruction to the U.S. are mere child’s play compared to some storms outside the Earth’s atmosphere. If you were sitting at home on your couch and your local meteorologist began to rant about the latest storm that will bring 400 mph winds and temperatures plunging below -250°F, you would surely think he is lying. Now imagine those conditions lasting for at least 400 years and counting. Well, although this sounds like the makings of a science-fiction movie, this storm does exist as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.

All major storms on Earth usually have a large center of low atmospheric pressure with cyclonic motion (counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere). These cyclones dominate the Earth’s weather patterns and can cause significant destruction at the same time. However, interestingly, the Great Red spot in Jupiter’s Southern Hemisphere is actually associated with anti-cyclonic (high pressure) flow.

Although there are countless differences between the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and Earth storms, there are also some surprisingly striking similarities. All storms on Earth circulate due to Earth’s rotation.  This rotation deflects the direction of a moving object – a force known as the Coriolis. This deflection allows cyclones to rotate, giving them the ability to strengthen into powerful storms. Since all planets in our solar system rotate, the Coriolis effect is also present, ranging in strength due to size and rotational frequency of the planet. Since Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system and makes a complete rotation in only~10 hours, the Coriolis force has an exceptionally strong effect on the planet. This fast rotation is directly related to the strengthening of a storm and wind speeds resulting in a Great Red Spot that has winds up to 400 mph.

The strongest surface wind gust ever recorded on Earth was 253 mph during Cyclone Olivia in the late 90s. Winds at this strength have the ability to demolish almost all buildings in their path. By adding another 150 mph of sustained winds on top of this gust, there most likely would be no evidence that a structure ever existed. But before we put a category 20 hurricane on Earth, it is even possible for conditions like these to be on our planet?

Since, Jupiter rotates two and a half times faster than Earth, causing the stronger Coriolis force and winds, a storm like the Great Red Spot could not exist on Earth.  Thus, you don’t need to worry about a 400 mph storm busting down your door.  Just don’t let the people at the Weather Channel know how strong storms can get on Jupiter or they may have to come up with a whole new list of “storm” names.

Space Weather

How Coronal Mass Ejections affect life here on Earth

As meteorologists continue their fight against Mother Nature in hopes to produce the ”perfect” forecast, they may encounter some unusual problems outside of our atmosphere. Although outer space does not have an immediate or direct impact on the weather on Earth, space phenomena do have the ability to influence or disrupt the way meteorologists or the general public goes about their daily lives.

According to Earthsky blog writer, Christopher Crockett, Coronal Mass Ejections or CME’s are essentially “sun burps with the power of 20 million nuclear bombs”. Although these burps or hiccups are not totally understood, astronomers believe they are caused by twists or “kinks” in the Sun’s magnetic field, much like a phone cord or toy slinky. “These kinks snap the magnetic field and can potentially drive vast amounts of plasma into space” (Crockett). When the plasma is ejected into space it travels at a million miles per hour, that speed could get you from Boston to London in less than 30 minutes!

Since these explosions are angled at all different directions, they don’t always reach the Earth. However when they do come into contact with the Earth, a geomagnetic storm occurs. This means that the Earth’s magnetic field is temporarily altered as the day side of the magnetic field is compressed and the night side is stretched out. When this happens, the aurora lights can drift towards the mid-latitudes and display a magnificent natural light show.

The effects of CME’s are not always positive though; they can cause widespread power outages and sometimes even become deadly. Cosmic rays, which are very-high energy particles, can infiltrate the earth’s atmosphere and expose people to these deadly levels of radiation. This risk is elevated for those further away from the Earth’s surface such as astronauts or people in planes. For example, during a solar storm in 1989, astronauts aboard the Mir space station received their yearly radiation dose in just a few hours.

Lastly, the flurry of magnetic activity and induced electric currents can disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities. This can severely disrupt power grids and communication networks, leaving millions of people without power.

Just like the weather on Earth, there is nothing we can do to prevent CME’s other than forecast and prepare for these events. In fact, NASA is predicting that we could see a very large CME this year, however they are urging people not to freak out and go on with their daily lives.