Jenna Nagel / Submitted via FirstPerson
Clouds hanging over South Dakota cleared at around 11:30 p.m. CT Tuesday to reveal an aurora, photographed by Jenna Nagel. Auroral displays were visible in northern Europe, Canada and the northern U.S. Click through our aurora slideshow.
Tonight provides the last best viewing opportunity for northern lights created by this week's amazing outbursts from the sun. But even if you're far south of the aurora zone, don't take your eyes off the skies: The summer's biggest meteor show is just getting started.
The good news for aurora-watchers is that the final waves of solar activity were "dragging their feet" and swept past Earth later than expected, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The northern (and southern) lights are sparked when those waves of electrically charged particles, sent out by solar eruptions on Sunday, interact with Earth's magnetic field. "Unlike trains in Japan, these eruptions don't run on a clockwork schedule," said Leon Golub, an astronomer at the center.
Magnetometer readings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center indicate that geomagnetic activity hit a peak around midday and was on the decline. That suggests that tonight's auroral displays won't be as widespread as they were over the past couple of nights, when observers as far south as Iowa and South Dakota could spot the greenish streaks in the sky.
Jenna Nagel, a photography intern at the South Dakota Department of Tourism, was one of the lucky ones. "We knew it was there when the streaks came up," she told me today.
On Tuesday, Nagel snapped some pictures from a vantage point near Oahe Dam, just north of Pierre on the Missouri River, and dropped one of them into msnbc.com's FirstPerson photo in-box. That image now graces the top of this item.
"I didn't even see the pink part [of the aurora] until I saw the pictures," Nagel said.
SpaceWeather.com offers three Web pages' worth of photos, taken from locales ranging from Scandinavia and Canada to Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. "If one didn't know what they were looking for, they'd never know they were there," photographer Mike Hollingshead wrote in a message from Little Sioux, Iowa. "With a camera, it makes it easy to be sure."
The best strategy for aurora-watching is to get as far away from city lights as possible, with clear open skies to the north. Watch patiently for shifting shafts of light. Auroral displays can glow a faint red or an eerie green - the effect is much subtler than some of the photos make it out to be. The prime time for viewing is generally between midnight and dawn, but auroras are notoriously unpredictable. The glow can last for just a couple of minutes. or go on for hours.
If you're far south of the equator, similar instructions apply, except that you'd be looking south instead of north. Australian researcher Tom Luttrell sent SpaceWeather.com some lovely shots of the southern lights as seen from Antarctica's Casey Base. Back in June, space station astronaut Doug Wheelock sent down a beautiful image of the southern lights over Antarctica, but this week the preparations for an emergency repair spacewalk have forced him to scale back on his Earth-gazing time.
Based on forecasts from the Space Weather Prediction Center and the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, it looks as if the excitement over the northern lights will die down on Friday. But the excitement over the Perseid meteor shower, one of the year's best-known sky shows, is building up even as we speak. The Perseids are due to reach their peak next Thursday night, with a planetary triple play as the warmup act.
But all that is another story. We'll tell you more about the Perseids on Friday.
Be sure to check out our dazzling slideshow of aurora imagery. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."
NASA / CXC / SAO / JPL-Caltech / STScI
The Antennae galaxies, located about 62 million light-years from Earth, are shown in this composite image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), the Hubble Space Telescope (gold and brown), and the Spitzer Space Telescope (red).
New images from telescopes on Earth and in space are providing the inside stories behind a galactic smash-up and a stellar blast. These all-over views are not only scientically valuable - they're stunningly beautiful as well.
Today's offering from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center features the Antennae galaxies, which are in the midst of a merger 62 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Corvus. The Antennae, named after the long whiplike tails that point out from each galaxy like rabbit ears, have had many turns in the astronomical spotlight. In fact, Hubble's view of the scene is included in our roundup of classic Hubble hits.
The new imagery, however, adds in Chandra's X-ray view in blue as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared perspective in deep red. The bluest patches highlight clouds of hot, interstellar gas that have been enriched with rich deposits of heavy elements from supernova explosions. Bright points of blue are produced by material falling onto black holes and neutron stars.
The central concentration of red is associated with warm clouds of dust that are being heated by the newborn stars within. Those stars are being squeezed into existence due to gravitational pressure from the clashing galaxies. The Hubble imagery, in shades of gold and brown, provide the image's visible-light backbone. When you go to the Chandra website, click on the tabs to see how readings from different wavelengths have been blended together.
NASA is fortunate in having three "Great Observatories" that can triple-team complex objects such as the Antennae. In this case, the results shed light (so to speak) on the violent processes that lead to starbirth as well as galactic mergers and acquisitions. Our own Milky Way galaxy is heading toward just such a merger with the Andromeda galaxy ... a few billion years from now.
Now let's turn from the birth of stars to their death: Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have reconstructed the 3-D structure and movement at the core of a supernova remnant known as SN 1987A, in order to figure out how the asymmetric explosion took shape. The stellar blast, which was observed in 1987, occurred about 187,000 light-years away in the constellation Dorado, within the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Over the years, astronomers have been tracing how leftovers from the blast spread out and interacted with the surrounding interstellar medium. The new observations, made using the SINFONI spectrograph on the ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile, reveal that the explosion was stronger and faster in some directions than others. That explains why SN 1987A has such an unusual shape today. SINFONI was well-suited for the job because it can measure the velocity as well as the composition
Here's how the ESO team put it in Wednesday's image advisory:
"The first material to be ejected from the explosion traveled at an incredible 100 million kilometers per hour, which is about a tenth of the speed of light or around 100,000 times faster than a passenger jet. Even at this breakneck speed it has taken 10 years to reach a previously existing ring of gas and dust puffed out from the dying star. The images also demonstrate that another wave of material is traveling 10 times more slowly and is being heated by radioactive elements created in the explosion.
"'We have established the velocity distribution of the inner ejecta of Supernova 1987A,' says lead author Karina Kjær. 'Just how a supernova explodes is not very well understood, but the way the star exploded is imprinted on this inner material. We can see that this material was not ejected symmetrically in all directions, but rather seems to have had a preferred direction. Besides, this direction is different to what was expected from the position of the ring.'
"Such asymmetric behavior was predicted by some of the most recent computer models of supernovae, which found that large-scale instabilities take place during the explosion. The new observations are thus the first direct confirmation of such models."
The research paper, titled "The 3-D Structure of SN 1987A's Inner Ejecta," is to appear in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. In addition to Kjær, an astronomer at Queen's University Belfast, authors of the paper include Bruno Leibundgut and Jason Spyromilio of the ESO and Claes Fransson and Anders Jerkstrand of Stockholm University.
NASA / GSFC / ASU
An annotated image of Gruithuisen K, captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, highlights the concentric crater's inner and outer rims.
Finally, here's a kicker to the "Martian bull's-eye" picture I wrote about on Wednesday. It just so happened that the team behind the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera featured a similar picture on the same day ... but from the moon, not Mars. The concentric crater Gruithuisen K was probably created when a cosmic object slammed into a stretch of terrain with layers of harder and softer material. The result could have been a crater with multiple rims - just like Gruithuisen K.
The look of the lunar bull's-eye leaves me inclined to think that the bull's-eye on Mars had a similar genesis, due to layered terrain rather than a lucky double strike. But what do you think? Here's your chance to point to other odd-looking pictures from the moon, Mars or beyond.
NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona
The central pit within this Martian crater may have been caused by unusual surface layering or a second impact.
Does lightning strike twice in the same place? How about meteors striking Mars? This image, captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, suggests that a cosmic bullet could have hit almost smack-dab in the center of a crater created by an earlier impact. Or it could be the result of just one impact messing around with the Red Planet's layered terrain. Either way, the picture adds to the orbiter's store of weird and wonderful pictures from Mars.
The team behind the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, says the crater's concentric circles were probably created when something went splat into a section of layered hard-and-soft ground. The crater's central pit may be slightly offset because of uneven melting and erosion. The other explanation would be the crater-within-a crater scenario. A cosmic bull's-eye!
That's not the only weirdness turned up by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently. Here's just a smattering of images from the HiRISE team's latest data dump:
Meanwhile, other Mars probes are keeping busy as well. NASA's Spirit rover may be down for the count - but Opportunity, its twin on the other side of the planet, is chugging along toward Endeavour Crater. Oppy's recent images include faraway views of the crater's rim and a close-up view of Martian blueberries.
The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla offers up a cool 3-D image of Acidalia Planitia, captured by the Context Camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. You'll need red-blue glasses to get the 3-D effect, and it's really fun if you make the image as big as you can. I'd almost swear I could see tire tracks inside some of those troughs, but they're merely dune patterns.
As long as you've got your 3-D glasses at the ready, click on over to Cumbrian Sky for this week's Carnival of Space, which features more stereo imagery from Mars.
Foldit team / University of Washington
The Foldit puzzle game, shown in this screenshot, is aimed at untangling the mysteries of protein folding. The protein's color is based on score and other properties, while objects such as red spiky balls appear where parts of the protein are too close to each other, causing the player to lose points. Several of the tools available to players are shown in the menu at the bottom.
Researchers have developed a video game that rewards players for solving the scientifically substantial puzzles surrounding protein folding. The game, called Foldit, is the latest twist in the move toward the use of distributed computing and crowd-sourcing to solve huge scientific challenges.
Figuring out how complex molecules are bent and twisted could be key to developing new medicines and even nano-machines. Biochemists have found that the kinks in proteins act like stamped-out keys to unlock (or lock) the doors of cellular functions.
Misfolded proteins have been linked to a host of maladies, ranging from mad-cow disease to Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis. In contrast, proteins that are folded just right could block the pathways used by the HIV virus and other cellular evildoers, or even open up new paths for making biofuels and cleaning up the environment.
Eventually, scientists would love to custom-design proteins for particular applications. But nature's rules for protein-folding are complex and varied. To simulate the chemical process, you need high-powered software, the patience to check thousands of permutations and the ability to manipulate virtual molecules with great precision.
Sounds like just the job for a gamer, right? That's exactly what the University of Washington's Seth Cooper and his colleagues thought.
In this week's issue of the journal Nature, they report that "top-ranked Foldit players excel at solving challenging structure refinement problems" in protein folding, even if they aren't scientists. They say their experience shows that interactive multiplayer games provide "a powerful new approach to solving computationally limited scientific problems."
The researchers incorporated 10 protein-folding puzzles into the game, and set up a scoring system that paralleled the way that molecules work. Structures could be swapped or re-twisted to increase scores, but if certain parts of the molecule got too close to each other, the players were penalized.
Cooper and his colleagues found that the gamers outperformed the protein-folding field's standard structure prediction software, known as Rosetta, on five of the 10 puzzles. On three of the puzzles, Foldit and Rosetta came up with similar results. On the other two puzzles, Rosetta's protein-structure predictions were numerically better but still "basically incorrect," the researchers said.
The researchers said the way gamers approached the puzzles was as interesting as the protein-folding predictions they eventually came up with.
"Foldit gameplay supports both competition and collaboration between players. For collaboration, players can share structures with their group members, and help each other out with strategies and tips through the game's chat function, or across the wiki. The competition and collaboration create a large social impact to the game, which alters the aggregate search progress of Foldit and heightens player motivation. As groups compete for higher rankings and discover new structures, other groups appear to be motivated to play more, and within groups the exchange of solutions can help other members catch up to the leaders."
All this may not sound surprising to folks who spend their nights and days fighting zombies in "Left 4 Dead," or building galactic empires in "Starcraft II." But for some researchers, this is an eye-opener. The result could well be that we'll see more human-plus-machine projects such as Foldit, Stardust @ Home, Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo.
Sounds like it's time for citizen scientists to level up. What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
In addition to Cooper, authors of "Predicting Protein Structures With a Multiplayer Online Game" include Firas Khatib, Janos Barbero, Michael Beenen, David Baker and Zoran Popovic of the University of Washington; Adrien Treuille and Jeehyung Lee of Carnegie Mellon University; Andrew Leaver-Fay of the University of North Carolina; and Foldit players. To learn more, check out this news feature from Nature.
An artist's conception shows a prototype landing module separating from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
The scientific instruments have been selected for the first U.S.-European joint mission to Mars, and they're going to be looking for methane. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will be loaded up with gadgets designed to sniff out whether the gas is being generated by geological or biological processes.
Unexpected levels of methane were detected by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter in 2003, and the find was confirmed by ground-based observations supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation. One of the places where plumes of methane are rising into the Martian atmosphere is Nili Fossae, which is considered a prime target in the search for traces of Martian life.
The ExoMars experiments will track down more precisely where Mars' methane is coming from.
"Mapping methane allows us to investigate further that most important of questions: Is Mars a living planet, and if not, can or will it become so in the future?" David Southwood, ESA's director for science and robotic exploration, said in an ESA statement released Monday. NASA issued a parallel statement that quoted Associate Administrator Ed Weiler as saying the ESA-NASA project would "reduce duplication of effort, expand our capabilities and see results neither ever could have achieved alone."
The instruments on the probe, to be launched in 2016 on a NASA rocket, will include:
The orbiter will also carry a European piggyback probe designed to demonstrate technologies for entry, descent and landing on Mars.
The next ExoMars mission, due for a 2018 NASA launch, will send out a European rover with a drill as well as a NASA rover capable of caching samples for future return to Earth. All this is supposed to blaze the trail for a U.S.-European sample return mission to Mars, intended for launch in the 2020s.
Feel free to chime in with your comments below, and click the links to learn more about life on Mars:
The first wave of stormy weather from the sun hit Earth on Tuesday, sparking bright northern lights - and an even brighter light show is expected on Thursday when the second wave is due to hit.
Both waves were set off on Sunday, when a solar flare and a whooshing magnetic filament erupted on the sun, as seen in a series of images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, based in Colorado, say those two events sent two distinct waves of electrically charged particles toward Earth. And some space weather watchers suggest there were as many as four separate blasts of particles sent our way.
The first wave, sparked by the flare, began sweeping over our planet's magnetosphere at about 1 p.m. ET Tuesday and peaked at 3:30 p.m., based on real-time satellite readings of the proton flux. The arrival was heralded by elevated readings from the Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, or ACE. "We can see it hitting the ACE satellite even as we speak," Doug Biesecker, a spokesman for the Space Weather Prediction Center, told me Tuesday.
Biesecker said the relatively low-level magnetic disturbance may have caused some power-grid fluctuations and some weirdness for high-accuracy navigation systems, but he didn't expect the event to have any impact for "the average person on the street."
So how about those auroral displays?
"It bodes well for folks in Canada, at least," Biesecker said. "The strength of this storm is such that it's unlikely that people in the U.S. will have much of a chance. Except Alaska. They always have a chance."
Biesecker acknowledged that auroral displays could be more widespread than he and his colleagues expect. And based on the pictures sent in to SpaceWeather.com, observers in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as Canada and northern Europe had great views of the rippling greenish lights in the sky. Denmark's Jesper Grønne captured some stunning pictures plus a video well worth watching. It's the next best thing to being there.
Speaking of things well worth watching, it's definitely worth watching the skies on Wednesday night as well, even if the northern lights can't be seen from your locale.
After sunset, you can check out the planetary triangle that's forming in western skies. After midnight, you might spot some shooting stars, part of the buildup for this month's Perseid meteor shower. Before sunrise, you could catch the International Space Station as it flies overhead.
The forecast for northern lights is better for Thursday, when space weather forecasters expect another wave of particles from the filament ejection to hit Earth's magnetic field. The second wave is projected to have more of an effect than the first one. "It's a case of priming the pump with the first one," Biesecker explained. "The second one can do a little bit more than it could on its own."
There's a good chance of seeing an aurora from Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the northern parts of Minnesota and North Dakota. In fact, folks across the northern tier of the United States, from Maine and upstate New York to Washington state, could be well-placed to see the cosmic lights.
Aurora-seeking skywatchers in the Carolinas or Georgia are likely to be disappointed, but you never know. Space weather forecasters, like your typical TV meteorologists, don't always nail their predictions 100 percent. Keep an eye on the three-hour Kp index (5 or higher is good for seeing the northern lights, but not so good for satellites). You should also check out these websites for real-time information about geomagnetic activity:
If you do snap a cool picture of the northern lights, why not share it with the rest of the class? Submit your snapshots via msnbc.com's FirstPerson Web page and I'll pass along the best of the bunch. And feel free to file your skywatching report as a comment below.
Update for 5:09 p.m. ET Aug. 3: Here's another take on the aurora-viewing outlook from Christine Pulliam at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"We'll have multiple opportunities for a display of the Northern Lights over the next two days. The latest word from the solar scientists is that the sun erupted not just once, but four times. All four coronal mass ejections are headed toward Earth.
"Space weather forecasts are even more challenging than regular weather forecasts. Dr. Leon Golub says a coronal mass ejection is like a hurricane: It's large and fuzzy, and doesn't always move at the same speed. Currently, the estimated arrival times are:
Wednesday, Aug. 4 - 3 a.m. EDT
Wednesday, Aug. 4 - 1 p.m. EDT (aurorae not visible in daylight)
Wednesday, Aug. 4 - 8 p.m. EDT
Thursday, Aug. 5 - 2 a.m. EDT
"Any one of these events may or may not generate an aurora. It depends on details like magnetic field orientation. If the magnetic field in the oncoming solar plasma is directed opposite Earth's magnetic field, the result could be spectacular aurorae. If the fields line up, the coronal mass ejection could slide past our planet with nary a ripple.
"Viewing tips: No fancy equipment is needed to see the Northern Lights. You should seek a viewing location with dark skies, as far from city lights as possible. Then, look to the north. An aurora appears as a ghostly sheen of light, colored green or red, that slowly shimmers and undulates over time. An aurora can disappear within minutes or last for hours."
Update for 8:30 p.m. ET Aug. 3: One of the puzzles surrounding the sun has to do with the extended period of low activity during the most recent 11-year solar cycle. Why was the sun quiet for so long? An analysis just now being published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests an answer: The sun's conveyor belt took an unusually meandering course, stretching out the solar cycle. The solar conveyor belt transports super-hot plasma around the sun, much as Earth's ocean conveyor belt transports water and heat around our planet. Usually the flow gets no closer to the poles than 60 degrees latitude, but during solar cycle 23, the flow went all the way to the poles. Computer simulations showed that a stretched-out conveyor belt could stretch out the cycle's duration.
Update for 4:30 p.m. ET Aug. 4: The Center for Astrophysics says two waves of charged particles have swept past Earth, and two more are expected in the next 10 hours or so. The way the center's astronomers see it, the peak viewing may come late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. The University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute expects active aurorae Wednesday and Thursday night, with a sharp fall-off afterward. The Space Weather Prediction Center's maps suggest that Europe once again will get the best light show on Wednesday night.
The northern lights made the news on the MSNBC cable channel today: Watch the video featuring commentary by my colleague, NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped this X-ray photo of the sun early Sunday. The dark arc near the top right edge of the image is a filament of plasma blasting off the surface — part of the coronal mass ejection. The bright region is a solar flare. Watch a video explaining the filament and the flare.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured what appears to be a disturbance in the force - on the sun. Astronomers say Sunday morning's eruption sent out a blast of electrically charged particles that should create brilliant auroral displays on Tuesday night.
"This eruption is directed right at us, and is expected to get here early in the day on August 4th," astronomer Leon Golub said in a statement from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "It's the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time."
Fortunately, it's not all that big of an eruption: The X-ray blast rated a C3 on the Space Weather Prediction Center's scale, which suggests there'll be no disruption for power grids, satellites, astronauts on the International Space Station or navigation services on airplanes. Stronger space storms can have more serious impacts. In 1989, for example, a huge solar outburst sparked a nine-hour electrical blackout in Quebec - and a more moderate blast that occurred in April apparently turned a telecom satellite into a zombie.
The biggest impact from Sunday's solar storm is expected to be that killer light show: Observers in the northern tier of the United States and similar latitudes should be on the watch for rippling waves of reddish or greenish light in the night sky. And who knows? The northern lights have been known to dip down to Colorado or even farther south on occasion.
Such displays are caused by the interaction between solar particles and Earth's own magnetic field. It's hard to predict exactly when the wave will hit - but you'll maximize your chances of seeing something by getting far away from city lights and having a clear view to the north.
The sun is coming off a low in its 11-year activity cycle, and Sunday's eruption serves as another sign that things are finally picking up. SpaceWeather.com says the event apparently started with a flare from a site known as sunspot 1092, the only significant sunspot group currently facing Earth. At about the same time, the observatory detected a huge magnetic filament of material rising up from the sun's northern hemisphere.
It's not rock-solid certain that there's a connection between the flare and the filament, which were separated by 400,000 miles. But It looks as if a "solar tsunami" swept across the sun's surface from the flare site toward the filament zone, propelling the hot stuff into space.
"In short, we have just witnessed a complex global eruption involving almost the entire Earth-facing side of the sun," SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips said.
Is this the start of something big? Some doomsayers are worried that the sun is on schedule for a 2012 (or 2013) apocalypse - but all the signs so far is that our nearest star is in the midst of a thoroughly normal cycle. As the sun heads toward Solar Max, you can expect the potential for disruption, as well as the potential for harmless light shows like the one some folks will see Tuesday night. Keep watch on these sites for all the sights: