Drum roll please … Curiosity takes first-ever pix of asteroids from Mars!

The Curiosity rover captured the first image of asteroids from the surface of Mars. Also included in the image are separate photos of Mars’ moon Deimos in a circular, exposure-adjusted inset and square insets at left from other images the same night of its second moon Phobos as well as Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M

Dang! NASA’s Curiosity rover beat me to it by just one day, spotting the asteroids Ceres and Vesta from the surface of Mars on Sunday April 20. Me? I caught them later that night from a comfortable location on Earth with a pair of 8×40 binoculars.

The rover aimed its high-resolution mast camera skyward to take the first-ever photos of the largest (Ceres) and brightest (Vesta) asteroids. Both objects are destinations of NASA’s Dawn Mission as we learned in this recent blog. The photo shows trailed images of both – it was a 12-second time exposure – and Mars’ smaller moon Deimos. The others were added to make a composite. While it looks like it was taken with a mobile phone, it’s one of very few photos taken of the night sky from another planet. Here’s the original exposure.

Original mastcam photo of Ceres, Vesta and much brighter Deimos, the smaller of Mars’ two moons. Credit: NASA

The two asteroids and three stars would be visible to someone of normal eyesight standing on Mars. Specks are effects of cosmic rays striking the camera’s light detector. Given that Mars is located closer to the asteroid belt than Earth, I checked the brightness of Ceres and Vesta. Interestingly, both are located in the constellation Virgo just as they are from our own planet right now, but their brightnesses differ. Vesta shines at magnitude +4 (+5.8 from Earth), making it a relatively easy naked eye object from the Martian ‘countryside’. Ceres is currently magnitude +7 from home but magnitude +5.8 and dimly visible with the naked eye from Mars.

Curiousity took this fisheye photo with its front hazcam on April 24, 2014 from the Kimberley showing one of the three hills, likely Mt. Remarkable. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season,” said camera team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station. “The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.”

We love it and wouldn’t complain if you guys shot more nighttime stuff. How about a sequence of images of the rising Earth or a longer time exposure showing star trails with the landscape faintly illuminated by the light of Phobos and Deimos?

Lyrid meteor shower update / Potential meteor storm coming in May

Composite photo showing multiple Lyrid meteors on the night of April 21-22, 2014 from Chile. Seen from the equator and the southern hemisphere the constellation Lyra is “upside down” compared to the northern view. Credit: Yuri Beletsky

I confess that I didn’t go out to look at this year’s Lyrid meteor shower because of other commitments. Seeing Yuri Beletsky’s photo makes me I wish I had. Beletsky took the picture – a composite image – from Chile, where the constellation Lyra scoops low in the northern sky compared to its much higher position as seen from the northern hemisphere.

Yet the photo records a nice number of Lyrids just the same. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that he was watching from the Atacama Desert, home to some of the darkest skies on Earth. Still, like you and I, Yuri had to contend with moonlight. He called the shower “amazing”.

Checking in with the International Meteor Organization “quick look” meteor shower results, I see that a peak of 20 meteors was recorded NOT in the early morning hours of April 22 but rather very early that evening around 8 p.m. CDT. While East Coasters may have caught a snippet of maximum activity, it was still daylight for the rest of the U.S. European observers got the best views.

The Lyrids truly open up the meteor observing season with showers following at regular intervals in the months ahead. Next up are the Eta Aquarids, the spawn of Halley’s Comet, which peak in early May with no moon in the way.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude 17. Material shed by the comet during passes between 1898-1919 may spawn a rich meteor shower overnight May 23-24 according to meteor specialists Peter Jenneskins of the SETI Institute and Esko Lyytinen of the Finnish Fireball Working Group. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini

But all the year’s meteor offerings may pale next to the Camelopardalids, a new shower predicted to cast as many as 200-400 meteors per hour across the sky from a radiant near the North Star on the morning of May 24.

The display is connected to an unusually close approach of the comet 209P/LINEAR to Earth. The comet, discovered in Feb. 2004 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in New Mexico, will pass about 5 million miles (8 million km) from Earth, putting it in 9th place on the list of closest comet approaches ever.

On that May morning, we’re expected to pass through a dusty tendril of the comet’s debris and get treated to a jolly display of meteors from the constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe. Predicted to last only a few hours, observers in the U.S. and Canada will have the best seats in the house.

The meteors are expected to be bright and very slow moving. And that pesky moon? It will be a waning crescent low in the southeastern sky and hardly a bother. Sounds like a winner to me. I’ll have more about this unique event as we approach the big night.

Sentinel Mission would spy ‘city-killing’ asteroids in the nick of time


B612 foundation video showing locations of 26 asteroid impacts between 2000 and 2013

Poor Earth. Always getting whacked by asteroids. Now it’s time to do something about it. This week, the B612 Foundation, a private organization dedicated with protecting the planet from potential asteroid impacts, announced plans to build the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope to detect Earth-approaching asteroids long before they get here.

The Chelyabinsk meteoroid / asteroid, here seen from a dashcam video, was the largest impact in Earth’s atmosphere recorded by the nuclear test ban treaty network’s infrasound’s sensors since 2000. Before it exploded into smaller pieces, the asteroid measured about 65 feet across.

Data recently released from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, which operates a network of sensors that monitors Earth around the clock listening for the low frequency infrasound signature of nuclear detonations, recorded 26 large explosions in the atmosphere not from weapons but rather from small asteroid impacts. The largest of them was the headline-making Chelyabinsk fireball that exploded in the atmosphere with the force of 600-kilotons of TNT on Feb. 15, 2013. To put this in perspective, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had the energy of 15 kilotons.


Another fireball over Murmansk, Russia reminiscent of Chelyabinsk occurred Saturday night April 19. No sounds or explosions were heard but the object burned briefly as bright as the full moon. Video courtesy: Alexandr Nesterov

Most of the 26 impacts were smaller than Chelyabinsk and detonated high in the atmosphere over uninhabited regions like the oceans. Asteroid impacts greater than 20 kilotons occurred over South Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2009, the Southern Ocean in 2004, and Mediterranean Sea in 2002.

“While most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially-operated observatories,” stated Lu, CEO and co-founder of B612. “Because we don’t know where or when the next major impact will occur, the  only thing preventing a catastrophe from a “city-killer” sized asteroid has been blind luck.”

Sentinel would circle the sun inside Earth’s orbit and look outward to spy incoming Earth-crossing asteroids. The B612 Foundation hopes to raise private money to build the probe. Credit: B612 Foundation

The B612 Foundation (named after the asteroid in the novella “The Little Prince”) will partner with Ball Aerospace to privately build the Sentinel spacecraft that would launch in 2018 into a Venus-like orbit on a 6.5 year mission to find and track 90% of the asteroids larger than 460 feet (140 meters) with orbits that intersect Earth’s. It will also search for smaller asteroids in the 30-45 meter range, large enough to destroy a major city should our luck go bad. B612 estimates an asteroid this size strikes the planet about every hundred years.

Potentially hazardous asteroid 4179 Toutatis photographed by the Chang’e 2 spacecraft during a 2012 flyby. The asteroid is 2.8 miles long. Credit: CNSA

Sentinel will create a comprehensive map detailing the paths of asteroids during the next 100 years, giving earthlings decades of notice to alter their course through one of several imaginative but untested methods.

The Foundation believes that asteroid impacts rates have been underestimated and are 3-10 times more common than previously thought. While some would argue that number is overstated, there’s no denying that discovering more potentially hazardous objects is a good thing. Sentinel scientists hope to find some 500,000 large enough to pose a threat.

This is no fly-by-night operation. B612 was co-founded by Ed Lu, a former Shuttle and Soyuz astronaut, and has links with NASA, which will provide communications, navigation and tracking for the mission with its Deep Space Network.

To learn more about the topic, click HERE for a FAQ on hazardous asteroids and HERE to donate money to the mission.

If you can find Mars, you can spot Ceres and Vesta too – try it!

Ceres, the largest asteroid, and Vesta, the brightest, lurk near the bright planet Mars this spring. They’re easy to see in binoculars and showed up clearly in this 30-second time exposure made April 20, 2014. Credit: Bob King

Who hasn’t been dazzled by the Red Planet these April nights? Come 10 o’clock, Mars shines brilliantly in the south accompanied by the the blue-white star Spica. But did you know that just a short distance away, asteroids Ceres and Vesta are making their rounds in the night sky too?

Use this map to get started. The star to find is labeled Zeta Virginis, located a little less than one outstretched fist to the left of Mars. Point your binoculars there and then use the more detailed map below to navigate to Ceres and Vesta. Stellarium

Ordinary binoculars will easily show both. Last night I stood in my driveway with a pair of 8x40s and hopped from Mars to Zeta Virginis and then to the “Vesta Triangle” and saw them in the same field of view. Vesta shines at magnitude 5.8, bright enough to be dimly visible with the naked eye from a dark sky. Talk about easy. I hardly had to try with binoculars.

Ceres and Vesta hang out this month  near the “Vesta Triangle”, a small group of stars located about 3 degrees north of Zeta. Positions for both asteroids are shown for 10 p.m. CDT every five days with stars to magnitude ~8.5. The stars will remain in their places, but you’ll see Ceres and Vesta move slowly among them as the nights pass. Click to enlarge, then print to use outside. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Ceres, at magnitude 7, is fainter but well within easy reach from suburban skies. Now the cool part – both asteroids will be no more than a few degrees apart through July. That means they fit in the same binocular field of view, so if you find brighter Vesta, Ceres will always be nearby. Matter of fact, they’ll really get close come late June and early July. As we approach that time, I’ll provide additional maps.

Vesta (left) and Ceres. Vesta was photographed up close by the Dawn spacecraft from July 2011-Sept. 2012, while the best views we have to date of Ceres come from the Hubble Space Telescope. The bright white spot is still a mystery. Credit: NASA

If you’ve never seen an asteroid before except in close up photos taken by spacecraft, lower your expectations right now. They look exactly like stars. Even Ceres, the largest at 590 miles in diameter, is too small to appear more than stellar in even a large telescope. Vesta’s smaller yet – 330 miles wide – but brighter because it’s somewhat closer and also more reflective.

That’s OK. Getting to see the real thing is what skywatching’s about. I love the photos but honestly get more of a kick out of seeing the asteroids with my own eyes. When life gets tedious, I like to think of them silently cycling over my little patch of earth, Vesta 114 million miles away, Ceres 153 million.


Dawn’s Greatest Hits at Vesta – A Look at What We Learned (spiced up with guitar)

Coincidentally, both Vesta and Ceres, which orbit in the main asteroid belt, are the targets of NASA’s Dawn Mission. Dawn visited and studied Vesta from July 2011 to Sept. 2012 and revealed that the tiny world had something much in common with its big brothers, the planets. Vesta was once hot enough to melt and differentiate into an iron core, rocky mantle and crust like the terrestrial planets. Heat from the decay of radioactive elements like aluminum-26 caused heavier iron to trickle down to the core while lighter minerals floated to the top to form Vesta’s crust.

Ceres rotates once on its axis every 9 hours (Vesta takes 5.3 hours). These four photos span 2 hours 20 minutes. Photos taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA

While Ceres can still be considered an asteroid it’s also a member of a select group of dwarf planets, bodies large enough to have crunched themselves into spheres through their own gravity but not big enough to clear the region they orbit of smaller asteroids. Dawn’s on its way to its final target, a rendezvous with Ceres next February. Unlike dry and rocky Vesta, Ceres shows signs of water and clay.

While you’re waiting for the next close up photos, why not go out on the next clear night and see them for yourself?

Be a part of the ‘Blue Marble’, share a selfie on Earth Day

Citizen of Earth Astro Bob holds his ‘GlobalSelfie’ sign.

Sometimes it feels good to be part of something larger than yourself. Tomorrow on Earth Day you can do just that with nothing more than your phone.

Step outside and take a picture of yourself alone or with friends tomorrow holding your personalized ‘global selfie’ sign and then post it to social media using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie. After the pictures stream around the world on Earth Day, NASA will gather them up to create a mosaic image of Earth built entirely of our faces.

The effort is part of NASA’s Earth Right Now campaign focusing on study of the home planet from orbit. This year, five NASA Earth-observing missions are underway or planned, the most ever to launch in a single year in more than a decade:

The NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory onboard launches from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on Feb. 27 this year. There are currently 17 active NASA Earth-observing missions underway with more to come this year. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory – Launched in coordination with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Feb. 27, it will measure global rain and snow.

Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite will track Earth’s water cycle, allowing the agency to “follow the water” from underground aquifers to the oceans to moisture and rainfall in the clouds.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will measure carbon dioxide and study how carbon moves the atmosphere, land and ocean.

ISS-RapidScat will launch to the space station and observe how winds behave around the globe to assist in weather forecasting and hurricane monitoring.

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) instrument will make critical measurements of clouds and aerosols (haze, dust, air pollutants).

Although we usually associate NASA with missions focused on outer space, the agency has been strongly involved in Earth science and studies from the unique perspective of orbiting observatories for decades.

Click to download the sign and then make a print. Credit: NASA

When you snap your selfie, you can either print out the sign and include it in the photo like I did or create your own using rocks, pieces of wood or whatever’s at hand.

Post your photo to Twitter, Instagram or Google+ using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie, or post it to the #GlobalSelfie event page on Facebook or the #GlobalSelfie group on Flickr.

The Earth mosaic image and a video using the images will be put together and released in May.

I hope to see you there!

Chance again tonight April 20-21 for northern lights

Very nice aurora north of Duluth about 10 p.m. Sunday night. The rays were intensely colorful in the camera but much paler to the eye. Credit: Bob King

There’s been some action on the aurora scene today. A coronal mass ejection from the sun blew by Earth this afternoon and sparked auroras over northern Scandinavia and other locations in northern Europe where it was dark at the time. There’s continues to be a fair chance for minor auroras over the northern U.S. tonight (Sun. April 20-21), so you may want to be on the lookout. Check the Ovation Aurora site to see the extent of the aurora in near real time.

Curious crossing of colors – tall pink rays in front of a low green arc.  Amazing! Credit: Bob King

UPDATE 1 a.m. April 21 — The northern lights made a decent showing over northern Minnesota between the end of twilight around 9:30 p.m. until about 10:45 p.m. Sunday night. Lots of slow-moving, “lazy” rays to 50 degrees across the north. Extremely colorful in the camera but pale pink-purple to the naked eye at best. Hope you got to see the show.

Occasional rays formed that glowed for many seconds at a time before fading away appeared in the northern sky. Credit: Bob King

Lyrid meteor shower graces the planet on Earth Day

A bright Lyrid meteor streaks across the northwestern sky in this photo taken during the last peak on April 22, 2013. Credit: John Chumack

We celebrate Earth Day this upcoming Tuesday, a time to reflect on how each of us can better our environment. It also happens to be the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower.

The Lyrids reliably shoot from the sky every mid to late April, peaking overnight April 21-22 this year. I’ve seen the Lyrids on a couple occasions and can vouch that it’s a reliable though not particularly rich meteor shower. Normal rates are 10 to 20 meteors per hour, but light from the last quarter moon will reduce this year’s count to 5-10 per hour.

This map shows the sky facing east around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning April 22 when the radiant will be lower but still up before moonrise. Stellarium

The greatest number of meteors are seen when the radiant, the point in the sky from which they appear to stream, is highest. That occurs just before dawn Tuesday morning. But because the moon doesn’t rise until 2-2:30 a.m., you might do just as well catching the Lyrids from midnight till 2. The radiant will be moderately high in the east and the sky still dark.

The Lyrid radiant is much higher around 4 a.m. when the moon will also be up. Skywatchers take note! The moon will be very close to the third magnitude star Beta Capricorni. Those living in the western half of the U.S. will see it covered up or occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. MDT / 3:30 a.m. PDT. The event will be visible in 10x binoculars and small telescopes. Stellarium

While the Lyrids implies an association with the constellation Lyra, home to the brilliant star Vega, the meteors shoot from a location in eastern Hercules 7 degrees southwest of Vega. Each one you see is small bit of dust or rock left behind by Comet Thatcher which last appeared in 1861 and won’t again until 2276.

Voyager 1, which has crossed into interstellar space, is traveling at 38,000 miles an hour or about 1/3 the speed of a Lyrid meteor. Credit: NASA

Each April, Earth passes through Thatcher’s stream of debris and we see the pieces flare as meteors when they strike the air overhead.

Their average speed is 105,000 mph (169,000 km/hr). That’s almost 3 times faster than the current fastest moving spacecraft in the solar system, Voyager 1, at 38,000 mph (61,000 km/hr).

Not a major shower, the Lyrids still occasionally surprise with fireballs and rich outbursts of meteors. Counts were much higher than normal in 1803, 1849, 1850, 1884, 1922, 1945, and 1982. Both Ludwig von Beethoven and famous astronomer William Herschel were around for the 1803 Lyrids which topped out at more than 500 per hour!

NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network detected more than 30 Lyrids as bright as Venus on the nights around the shower’s peak last April 22. Their orbits, shown here in green, neatly intersect the Earth (red splat). “The purple ellipse is the orbit of Comet Thatcher,” adds Bill Cooke, lead scientist for the Office. “The orbits of the comet and the meteoroids match up nicely.” Credit: NASA

To watch the shower, either take the ‘early shift’ from midnight-2:30 a.m. and face east or dare to challenge the moon between 2 and dawn when Hercules and Vega are high in southern sky. I usually spice up my meteor watching with a look through the telescope at the bright planets. Mars shines due south now around midnight with Saturn further off to the southeast.

One final note. The moon will be very close to the star Beta in Capricornus Tuesday morning. Take a look at it in binoculars. If you live in the western half of the U.S., Beta will be occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. Mountain time, 3:30 a.m. Pacific. Midwesterners might still see it in bright twilight around 5:30 a.m. with a small telescope. Look immediately to the left of east of the moon’s bright edge.

Invite a friend to join you, boil up some tea and relax under the stars. Every meteor you see is a gift.

NASA’s LADEE spacecraft crashes into the moon – preliminary mission results

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft crashing into the moon’s farside Thursday April 17. Credit: NASA

What it may sound like a huge disaster, destroying the $263 million dollar spacecraft was NASA’s intention from the start. At 8:59 p.m. CDT April 17, the agency confirmed the probe had impacted the moon’s surface.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Explorer or LADEE (pronounced ‘laddie’) began circling the moon last fall, its mission to study dust in its extremely rarefied lunar atmosphere. Much of the dust sputters off the surface during meteorite impacts, while some may be lofted into the sky by electrostatic forces active when the sun rises along the day-night borderline called the terminator.

LADEE only had so much fuel to conduct operations at the moon. When that was used up, the mission was complete. The vending-machine-sized probe broke apart as it heated up upon impact. Many pieces likely lie scattered across and inside craters. Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

Prior to crashing, mission controllers gradually lowered the spacecraft’s orbit to study the moon’s near surface dust environment in ever more detail. While the moon lacks the atmosphere to slow a spacecraft and “drag” it down to the surface (like what happens at Earth), nature worked her wonders all the same. The moon’s gravity field is “lumpy”, with lighter, less dense regions alternating with denser concentrations of rock beneath the surface. Low-orbiting probes, perturbed by variations in pull of gravity are soon brought down.

An photo taken by the star trackers aboard LADEE of the moon’s surface illuminated by a nearly full Earth along with stars in the airless sky. Credit: NASA/Ames

“At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour – about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet,” said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at Ames. “There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds — it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created.”

LRO photographed LADEE about 5.6 miles beneath it on Jan. 14, 2014. Image width is about 898 yards (821 meters). LADEE appears stretched because it was moving and LRO builds an image a line at a time. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

NASA plans to work with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) team to overfly and capture an image of the impact site. LADEE struck the moon on the farside, a safe distance from any historic landing sites, all of which have been on the lunar nearside. Because radio communications can’t be received from the farside, NASA mission controllers had to wait for an hour during each ultra-low orbital pass. If LADEE began sending data again, they knew it was still “alive”. When LADEE didn’t show up at the planned time Thursday, the mission was declared over.

A thin crescent moon. Unseen except by space probes are the dribs and drabs of moon dust that comprise the moon’s rarefied atmosphere. Credit: Bob King

Scientists will be analyzing the data from the probe for a long, long time, but there are some preliminary results:

* LADEE survived the chill-inducing lunar eclipse earlier this week, demonstrating the spacecraft’s ability to endure low temperatures and a drain on batteries as it, and the moon, passed through Earth’s deep shadow.

* LADEE’s Lunar Dust EXperiment (LDEX) experiment detected an increase in the number of dust particles in the moon’s exosphere during the Geminid meteor shower in mid-December 2013.  The LDEX dust impacts are thought to be due to the ejecta, or spray, of particles that result when the Geminid meteoroids slam into the lunar surface. The exosphere or dilute lunar atmosphere contains dust particles as well as gases from the solar wind.

* The Ultraviolet and Visible light Spectrometer (UVS) carried out a series of before and after observations looking for effects of the Chinese Chang’e 3 landing in December and meteor showers. Analysis revealed an increase in sodium connected with the Geminids, as well as evidence of increased light scattering due to dust but no clear signal from the Chang’e 3 landing.

The UVS also has been monitoring specific wavelengths of light emitted by atomic oxygen, and has seen emissions that may indicate the presence of both iron and titanium in the lunar exosphere. All three are elements found in the lunar soil called regolith but have never been seen in the moon’s atmosphere before.

Wow, that’s a lot of sunspots! Aurora in the forecast April 19-20

A very busy sun photographed early this morning with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspot region 2035 shot off a moderately strong M-class flare on April 16. NOAA forecasters predict a 60% chance for more flares today from one or more of the sunspot groups. Credit: NASA

I can’t recall seeing the sun this peppered with sunspots in a long time. Through the scope this morning I counted nine separate groups. No single spot or group stood out as unusually large, but the combined effect of seeing so many blemishes in one glance made an impression. I encourage you to point your telescope – suitably equipped with a safe solar filter of course – at the sun today to appreciate how fraught with magnetic activity our sun has become.

Each group marks a region on the sun’s shiny outer skin called the photosphere where magnetic energy is concentrated. Strong magnetic fields within a sunspot group quell the turbulent churning of the photosphere, chilling the region by several thousand degrees. Sunspots appear dark against the sun’s blazing disk because they’re cooler.

A powerful solar flare in sunspot region 2036 captured this morning around 8:30 a.m. CDT April 14 in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Energy stored in sunspots’ twisted magnetic fields can suddenly be released in violent, explosions called solar flares. Billions of tons of solar plasma – the sizzling mix of protons and electrons that composes the sun – are heated to millions of degrees during the explosion and rapidly accelerated into space. Radiation from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays fan out at the speed of light. Fortunate for us, our atmosphere and planetary magnetic field protect us from most of what flares can dish out.

The powerful X4.9 solar flare of Feb. 25, 2014 recorded in six different wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/SDO

Not everything though. Strong X-class flares can cause radio blackouts, damage satellite electronics and disrupt poorly protected power grids. They also can spark displays of northern lights. An M-class flare from sunspot region 2035 on April 16 may kick off auroras overnight Saturday April 19-20. NOAA forecasters predict a 25% chance of a minor auroral storm.


Video of February’s X4.9 flare shown in multiple wavelengths of light

Conditions are ideal if it comes to pass. Moonlight won’t be a problem and night temperatures are decidedly more pleasant than in February.

Kepler-186f: First Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of another star

The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f , the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the planet’s surface. Four additional planets orbit the star but they’re too close and too hot to support life. Credit: NASA

We’ve come a long way. First it was only giant planets seared by hot proximity to their host stars. Not anymore. Astronomers announced the discovery today of the first Earth-sized planet in the “habitable zone” of its host star. Habitable, when it comes to extra-solar planets, means the right distance for liquid water to pool on the planet’s surface. Water is intimately tied to life on Earth and may also be on other worlds.

Other planets have been discovered in their stars’ habitable zones, but they’ve all been at least 40% larger than Earth. This one, named Kepler-186f, nearly matches Earth in size and orbits Kepler-186, a star with four previously known planets 500 light years away in the constellation Cygnus (Northern Cross).

The diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is is half the size and mass of the sun. M-dwarfs are numerous, making them likely places to find Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA

“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable,” cautions Thomas Barclay, a research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has. Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

Kepler-186f is 10% larger than Earth and orbits an M class red dwarf star every 130 days, soaking in just one-third the amount of heat Earth receives from the sun. That places it near the edge of the habitable zone. Its mass and composition are still unknown, but previous studies imply planets this size are made of rock like Earth.


Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – the next generation in exoplanet discovery

The Kepler space telescope infers the existence of a planet by the amount of starlight blocked when it passes in front of its host star. From these data, a planet’s size, orbital period and the amount of energy received from the host star can be determined. Before an equipment failure, Kepler observed nearly 150,000 stars simultaneously looking for dips in the stars’ light made by orbiting planets.

To date, about a thousand planets have been confirmed with the Kepler data with another nearly 3,000 unconfirmed candidates.

“Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind’s quest to find truly Earth-like worlds,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director.

Like we often do in our personal lives, we’re looking for someone like us. Earth’s twin is out there. We’re getting closer.