Mars mystery plumes might be auroras

Mystery plume in Mars' southern hemisphere photographed by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012

Mystery plume in Mars’ southern hemisphere photographed by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012. The feature extended between 310-620 miles and lasted for about 10 days.

Strange plumes in Mars’ atmosphere first recorded by amateur astronomers two years ago have planetary scientists still scratching their heads.

On two occasions in 2012 amateurs photographed cloud-like features rising to altitudes of over 155 miles (250 km) above the same region of Mars. By comparison, similar features seen in the past haven’t exceeded 62 miles (100 km). Back then, no one was certain of the cloud’s nature; it was thought ice crystals or even dust whirled high into the Martian atmosphere by seasonal winds could be the cause.

Mars High-altitude_plume_on_Mars

The top image shows the location of the mysterious plume on Mars (yellow circle)  along with different views of the plume’s changing shape taken by Wayne Jaeschke and Don Parker on March 21, 2012

But a recent paper by scientist Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain explores other possibilities. One problem with dust or ice is altitude – 155 miles is way, way up there where Mars’ atmosphere grazes outer space. Just how clouds could form so high is unknown.

“One idea we’ve discussed is that the features are caused by a reflective cloud of water-ice, carbon dioxide-ice or dust particles, but this would require exceptional deviations from standard atmospheric circulation models to explain cloud formations at such high altitudes,” said Agustin.

Another idea is even more intriguing. The wisps could be Martian auroras linked to regions on the surface with stronger-than-usual magnetic fields.


The small protrusion extending into the night sky of Mars in this 1997 Hubble photo is probably a high cloud catching sunlight. Credit: NASA/ESA

The small protrusion extending into the night sky of Mars in this 1997 Hubble photo resembles the March 2012 plumes in appearance and altitude. Credit: NASA/ESA

Once upon a very long time ago, Mars may have had a global magnetic field generated by electrical currents in a liquid iron-nickel core much like the Earth’s does today. In the current era, the Red Planet has only residual fields centered over regions of magnetic rocks in its crust.

Instead of a single, planet-wide field that funnels particles from the Sun into the atmosphere to generate auroras, Mars is peppered with pockets of magnetism, each potentially capable of connecting with the wind of particles from the Sun to spark auroras.

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can sometimes form. Credit: NASA

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

Auroras were first discovered on Mars in 2004 by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since last September, is well-equipped to study the planet’s upper atmosphere and auroras, so perhaps we’ll have a more definitive answer soon on the makeup of the mysterious plumes.

Shoot rockets at the aurora? Yes! Four launched overnight

A composite shot of all four rockets for the M-TeX and MIST experiments is made up of 30 second exposures. The rocket salvo began at 4:13 a.m. EST, Jan. 26, 2015, from the Poker Flat Research Range, Alaska. The white vapor clouds form from the release of trimethyl aluminum. Credit: NASA / Jamie Adkins

It was a good night at Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska last night. Conditions were go for the launch of four rockets straight into the northern lights near the fringe of Earth’s airy envelope. The goal? To study how auroral, radiation belt and energetic particles from the Sun affect the composition of the upper atmosphere.

Called the Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiment, or M-TeX, and the Mesospheric Inversion-layer Stratified Turbulence, or MIST, each rocket released trymethyl aluminum (TMA), a liquid used as a tracer of upper atmospheric winds. When released into the air it turns into bright, white smoke.  Scientists at various ground stations photographed the evolving and expanding clouds of vapor to understand wind patterns in the rarefied regions where the aurora forms – usually 50-87 miles high. TMA vapor tracers do not pose a risk to health or the environment, according to NASA.

The M-TeX is prepared for vibration testing at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Credit: NASA/Berit Bland

“Recent solar storms have resulted in major changes to the composition of the upper atmosphere above 49 miles (80 km), where enhancements in nitrogen compounds have been found,” said Richard Collins, M-TeX principal investigator from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “These compounds can be transported into the middle atmosphere where they can contribute to ozone destruction.”

While the compounds can be transported to the lower atmosphere, it’s not a guarantee. That all depends on the roles of heating and turbulence produced by the onslaught of solar particles and radiation. That’s why scientists are doing the studies in the first place – to determine how materials in the upper atmosphere mix with those in the middle and what effect that might have on everything from air pollution to satellite drag.

Satellite drag is the retarding effect even the wispy air near the edge of outer space exerts in slowing down an orbiting satellite and changing its orbit. Large amounts of energy from auroras can heat the upper atmosphere, causing it to expand and increase satellite drag.

Launching rockets into the aurora. Audacious and sure to help us better understand how space weather affects our more meteorological variety.

Surprise auroral storm / Comet Lovejoy update / Jupiter,moon tight tonight

Aurora and the Full Wolf Moon photographed on January 5th from Abisko National Park in Sweden. A surprise auroral storm early this morning produced auroras visible across Canada and the northern U.S. even in moonlight. Click to see more aurora photos. Credit: Oliver Wright /

No one suspected it was coming, but this morning from about 3 a.m. till dawn (Central time) Earth’s magnetic bubble went bananas and busted out with auroras. At peak, the Kp index hit “7” for a G3 or strong geomagnetic storm. If only we’d known.

The auroral oval around 3:30 a.m. (CST) January 7th. Credit: NOAA

The storm appears to have been sparked by a large coronal mass ejection that may have occurred on January 3rd. The blast was originally thought to have happened on the far side of the Sun.  As the rogue solar winds passed Earth, its embedded magnetic field happened to “point south”. South-pointing magnetism find easy linkage with Earth’s north-pointing field, opening a portal for solar electrons and protons to stream in and incite polar auroral displays.

A G3 event expands the ever-present auroral oval far enough south that even folks in Illinois and other mid-western states as far south as Illinois will see the northern lights. While the activity has dropped off this afternoon, minor storming is still expected early this evening. Look to the north before moonrise for signs of a bright greenish arc.

Comet Lovejoy through a 200mm telephoto lens yesterday January 6th around 7 p.m. (CST). The comet was fainly visible with the naked eye. You can just see the tail pointing to the left of the blue-green coma. Details: 2.5 seconds, ISO 16,000. Credit: Bob King

Earlier last night before moonrise, we had clear skies here in Duluth, Minn., presenting us with a brief but nice showing of Comet Q2 Lovejoy in the constellation Eridanus. With only about 20 minutes of dark sky and the comet relatively low in the southeast it was still faintly visible with the naked eye. My 10×50 binoculars offered up the best view of the comet’s big, condensed coma; it was surprisingly easy to see about 1.5° (three full moon diameters) of faint tail streaking off to the northeast.

Watch for the waning gibbous moon to rise in conjunction with the planet Jupiter this evening. This map shows the sky facing east around 9 p.m. local time. Source: Stellarium

The moon rises later tonight leaving us even more dark sky for comet viewing. It also joins the company of the planet Jupiter this evening. Yes! The two orbs will be in conjunction tonight and really grab your eye when you face east for a view.

Aurora alert through Sunday night Dec. 20-21 / Aurora link updates

The auroral oval has been expanding southward toward the northern U.S. overnight. If you live in the border states, there’s a good chance you’ll see some activity tonight-tomorrow morning. This map shows the oval around 12:45 a.m. Sunday morning Dec. 21st. Credit: NOAA

Auroras are on the prowl. A glancing punch from a coronal mass ejection on December 17th coupled with a more direct hit from another blast on the 18th are already goosing Earth’s magnetic bubble this evening and will continue through Sunday evening. NOAA predicts the latter will cause moderate to major storming starting early Sunday morning (Dec. 21)  through midnight Sunday night. Judging from the map, we’d see aurora here in Duluth, Minn. were the sky clear.

Tomorrow beginning at 5:03 p.m. (CST) marks the start of winter, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Wouldn’t it be nice to fill that night with auroras?

NOAA recently updated many of the space weather websites including changing the addresses. Here are the new links for you to bookmark:

* 30-minute Aurora Forecast (the old Ovation oval)
* Planetary K-index (the old 3-day Kp index)
* ACE Real-time solar wind
* 3-day forecast

The X1.8 flare around 6:45 p.m. (CST) Friday evening is a brilliant beacon in the light of far ultraviolet light as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, sunspot region 2242 erupted with a strong X1.8 flare on Friday evening December 20th (CST). Lots happening.

Cloudy or not I’ll be monitoring the upcoming bumpy weather and post updates as necessary. Let us know if you see anything.


The Geminids ain’t over yet! Meteor shower update

Jeff Stephens created this composite of all the Geminids he caught during the peak hours on the morning of December 14th from central Louisiana. His camera faced north. Click for more of Jeff’s images. Credit: Jeff Stephens

An overcast of biblical proportions has hidden the sky at my home for 9 nights in a row. But even without seeing a single Geminid meteor, I can tell you this – the shower’s been fantastic. NASA’s network of all-sky cameras detected more than 200 fireballs and the International Meteor Organization’s quicklook data show a peak of 155 meteors an hour around 10 p.m. (CST) December 13th.

Though past maximum, bits and pieces of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the meteor shower’s parent, will continue to zip through the atmosphere over the next few nights. We may even be see some larger fireballs. The Geminids arrive pre-sorted, with the smallest meteoroids appearing early on, followed by larger crumbs and small rocks later.

Diagram of the inner solar system showing the orbits of Geminid fireballs (and a few other bright meteors) on December 14th. They intersect at the blue dot, which represents Earth, and are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue) based on information from NASA’s all-sky camera network that scans the skies above the U.S. Automated software determines the orbits and other characteristics of the incoming meteors. Credit: NASA/ Bill Cooke

The moon has continued to slim down and is now a crescent rising well after midnight. Best viewing times will be from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. There’s also a decent chance for a small auroral display tonight for the northern U.S. and southern Canada.  You’ll find more about the Geminids HERE.

Zoltan Kenwell got a nice auroral surprise when he stepped out to watch the Geminid meteor shower near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada yesterday morning December 14th. Click to see more of Ken’s aurora photography. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

Heck of a place to watch a meteor shower … and northern lights. Zoltan Kenwell kicks back and takes it all in Sunday morning. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

Click play and see the aurora sizzle and blaze in real time

Singe frame from the new video “Soaring”, one of the best real-time aurora videos. It was taken with a Sony A7S camera. This image shows a vivid coronal aurora near the zenith. Credit: Ole Solomonsen

We’ve often shared pictures and videos of the northern lights here, but wait till you see the latest video from Norwegian landscape photographer Ole Salmonsen. Salomonsen has been shooting still images and time-lapse video of the aurora for years. This week he posted a brand new movie of the aurora shot from late August through mid-November in real-time. You heard correctly – no sped-up, compressed time.This is the aurora moment-to-moment just the way you’d see it live.

“Soaring” by Ole Salomonsen

There are lots of nice touches in the video including scenes of Tromsø, Norway (where Ole is based), a woman staring into the sky and several truly amazing panned sequences that look to me like they were shot with a drone. What’s your opinion?

Although Ole’s work isn’t the first real-time aurora movie, this might be the best effort to date. The slowness of the initial sequences makes a striking contrast with later views of the coronal aurora unfolding at lightning speed and helps us to appreciate the complex rhythms that pulse through active displays.

I love it and hope you will too. For more on how the film was done, check out Ole’s site. Salomonsen tells me this work is just a small sample of what’s to come. Stay tuned!

Awesome Iceland aurora time-lapse and a bear claw sunspot

Joe Capra’s recently released time lapse of aurora over Iceland and Greenland

Nice work! Take a peek at Joe Capra’s recent 10-day shoot of the aurora and you’ll be licking your chops to fly to Greenland on the next available plane. Capra used three Canon 5D Mark III cameras with various Canon lenses to shoot hundreds of individual photos that he later stacked into a video. The reflections on ice and water are spectacular.

A low, green aurora in the northern sky on November 19th sparked by a coronal hole. Credit: Bob King

Here in the northern U.S., the aurora’s been snoozing. Even though gusts of solar wind from a leaky coronal hole have tickled Earth’s magnetic domain the past few nights, conditions have remained below storm level. The aurora’s been a constant but quiet presence like the embers of an overnight fire.

More low aurora simmers in the north last night (Nov. 20) around 11 o’clock. The band of northern lights, called the aurora oval, hovers directly over places like Iceland and Greenland, so people there get to see displays nearly every dark night of the year. It takes coronal holes, flares and other kinds of heightened solar activity to expand the oval so skywatchers in lower latitudes get their chance. Credit: Bob King

Expect the same horizon-hugging aurora for the next couple nights as the hole in the Sun’s magnetic canopy continues to send pinging particles our way.

That giant sunspot that’s made it through a second rotation of the Sun has been nothing but a tease when it come to flares. On its return a week ago, the group possessed the magnetic complexity to unleash powerful X-class flares, but so far, all’s been quiet on the solar front.

Sunspot group 2209 (older 2192) mimics a bear claw in this photo taken on November 19th by French amateur astronomer Philippe Tosi with an 8-inch telescope. Earth shown for size. Click to see more of his amazing high-resolution Sun image. Credit: Philippe Tosi

Flares aside, the region makes a great sight in the telescope. Shaped like a bear claw, the main spot in the group still spans more than three Earths. Philippe’s photo beautifully shows the fiber-like texture of the outer penumbra fringing the darker umbras.

Sunspots are cooler regions on the Sun’s surface – the reason they appear darker – where strong magnetic fields insulate those areas from their hotter surroundings. Notice the rice grain texture of the background. Called granules, each one’s about the size of Texas and represents an individual cell of hot solar gas rising from below like bubbles in a pot of boiling water. At the surface, the gas cools and sinks back down along the tiny, dark channels separating one from another. Re-heated, they rise again.

Cloudy? Snowy? That won’t stop you from seeing THIS aurora

Aurora flyover in high-def video from the International Space Station

Wish it had been clear at dawn this morning. Some of us would have seen a very nice aurora. As predicted, Earth’s magnetic bubble got slammed by a package of high-speed solar wind overnight that fired up the northern lights. The impact continues to reverberate with more activity expected tonight.

No matter the weather or circumstance, I think you’ll enjoy this high-definition video taken from the International Space Station. The curls, rolls and flashing purple flames are, well, incredible. And there’s nothing quite like looking down on the aurora from an altitude of 250 miles (402 km). As the camera pans, you’ll also see the delicate green film of airglow, which is distinct from the northern lights – airglow surrounds the entire planet like a membrane around a cell.

Green, streaky airglow seen from the ground on July 22, 2014. Its faint light is half the reason you can always see around on even the darkest nights. The other light is provided by the stars. Credit: Bob King

Ultraviolet light from the daytime sun ionizes or knocks electrons off of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules; at night the electrons recombine with their host atoms, releasing energy as light of different colors including green, red, yellow and blue.  The brightest emission, the one responsible for creating the airglow so often seen in space station nighttime images and videos, stems from excited oxygen atoms beaming emerald green light.

Forget about the clouds and take a ride with the astronauts where it’s forever clear.

Aurora alert tonight through Monday night Nov. 9-10

Aurora smolders beneath the Big Dipper tonight November 9th around 7 p.m. Credit: Bob King

Around 7 p.m. this evening, just before moonrise, a smoky green glow fired up beneath the Big Dipper low in the northern sky. The Moon rose and clouds soon followed, but we might be in for a couple nights of northern lights.

Cirrostratus clouds at moonrise this evening refracted moonlight into a pretty halo. Caught in the semi-circle is the Hyades star cluster (lower right). The Pleiades are at upper right. Credit: Bob King

A coronal mass ejection that launched from the Sun on November 7th will arrive overnight and could produce minor to moderate (G1-G2) geomagnetic storms now through midnight Monday night. The strongest activity is expected between 3-9 a.m. (CST) tomorrow morning.

A blast of high-speed electrons and protons from the Sun on November 7 looks like it may affect Earth overnight and into Monday. Credit: NASA/ESA

Tonight’s little taste will hopefully be a sign of more to come.

Auroras in the north tonight Oct. 14-15

Aurora low in the northern sky around 10:30 p.m. CDT this evening October 14, 2014. Credit: Bob King

Earlier this evening, a glancing blow from a solar blast that left the sun on October 10th jiggled Earth’s magnetic domain to produce a modest display of northern lights. Forecasters originally expected the coronal mass ejection (CME) to miss Earth. My astronomy class and I noticed a low arc in the north as early as 8:30 p.m. A half hour later, the arc broke apart into a beautiful set of evenly-spaced rays across the northern sky.

These slowly faded back to a quiet glow as if the aurora decided to take a nap and then re-brightened about 9:30. Right now at 11 p.m. the display has returned to a quiet arc about 5 degrees above the northern horizon directly below the Big Dipper. Something about it reminds me of a pale green feather boa.

The Kp index, a measure of how magnetically disturbed the upper atmosphere is, hit 5 this afternoon and evening, the mark of a minor geomagnetic storm. Auroras are usually seen across the northern border states when Kp=5. Credit: NOAA

NOAA space weather shows a G1 minor geomagnetic storm underway since the afternoon. Activity may be dropping off now, but it’s hard to say for sure, so keep a lookout for auroras tonight if you live in the northern states and southern Canada. Besides aftereffects of the solar blast, a chance for more auroras will continue the next couple nights due to “solar sector boundary crossings”. These are changes in the direction of the magnetic field within the solar plasma (electron and proton mix) that continually streams from the sun called the solar wind.