After more than 15 years of scientific discoveries, NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere, or AIM, spacecraft is no longer supporting operations after experiencing issues with its battery.
AIM’s batteries initially started to decline in 2019, but the Earth-studying spacecraft continued to return a significant amount of data. Now, with further decline in the battery power, the spacecraft currently is not able to receive commands or collect data.
Launched in 2007, AIM has studied polar mesospheric clouds, also known as night-shining or noctilucent clouds, from its orbit 312 miles above Earth. Its data have changed scientists’ understanding of the causes and formation of the clouds, leading to 379 peer-reviewed scientific papers. AIM – originally slated to operate for two years – completed its primary mission in 2009 and has been in extended operations status since then.
The AIM team will continue to monitor AIM’s communication for two weeks in case the spacecraft is able to reboot and transmit a signal.
By Mara Johnson-Groh NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md
A massive eruption of solar material, known as a coronal mass ejection or CME, was detected escaping from the Sun at 11:36 p.m. EDT on March 12, 2023.
The CME erupted from the side of the Sun opposite Earth. While resarchers are still gathering data to determine the source of the eruption, it is currently believed that the CME came from former active region AR3234. This active region was on the Earth-facing side of the Sun from late February through early March, when it unleashed fifteen moderately intense M-class flares and one powerful X-class flare.
Based on an analysis by NASA’s Moon to Mars Space Weather Office, the CME was clocked in traveling at an unusually fast 2,127 kilometers (1,321 miles) per second, earning it a speed-based classification of a R (rare) type CME.
A simulation of the CME below shows the blast erupting from the Sun (located at the middle of the central white dot) and passing over Mercury (orange dot). Earth is a yellow circle located at the 3 o’clock position.
The eruption is likely to have hit NASA’s Parker Solar Probe head-on. The spacecraft is currently nearing its 15th closest approach of the Sun (or perihelion), flying within 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers) of the Sun on March 17. On March 13, the spacecraft sent a green beacon tone showing the spacecraft is in its nominal operational mode. The scientists and engineers are awaiting the next data download from the spacecraft, which will occur after the close approach, to learn more about this CME event and any potential impacts.
The eruption is known as a halo CME because it appears to spread out evenly from the Sun in a halo, or ring, around the Sun. Halo CMEs depend on the observer’s position, occurring when the solar eruption is aligned either directly towards Earth, or as in this case, directly away from Earth. This expanding ring is apparent in the view from NASA/ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, spacecraft shown below. SOHO observes the Sun from a location about 1 million miles closer to the Sun along the Sun-Earth line. In SOHO’s view, the Sun’s bright surface is blocked to reveal the much fainter solar atmosphere and erupting solar material around it. The bright dot on the lower right side of the image is Mercury.
Even though the CME erupted from the opposite side of the Sun, its impacts were felt at Earth. As CMEs blast through space, they create a shockwave that can accelerate particles along the CME’s path to incredible speeds, much the way surfers are pushed along by an incoming ocean wave. Known as solar energetic particles, or SEPs, these speedy particles can make the 93-million-mile journey from the Sun to Earth in around 30 minutes.
Though SEPs are commonly observed after Earth-facing solar eruptions, they are less common for eruptions on the far side of the Sun. Nonetheless, spacecraft orbiting Earth detected SEPs from the eruption starting at midnight on March 12, meaning the CME was powerful enough to set off a broad cascade of collisions that managed to reach our side of the Sun. NASA’s space weather scientists are still analyzing the event to learn more about how it achieved this impressive and far-reaching effect.
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) is fully operational after the mission team successfully reset the spacecraft on March 2.
To take the spacecraft out of a contingency mode it entered last month, the mission team performed a firecode reset (which is an external reset of the spacecraft) instead of waiting for the spacecraft to perform an autonomous reset and power cycle on March 4. The decision took advantage of a favorable communications environment around IBEX’s perigee – the point in the spacecraft’s orbit where it is closest to Earth.
After the firecode reset, command capability was restored. IBEX telemetry shows that the spacecraft is fully operational and functioning normally.
Launched on Oct. 19, 2008, IBEX is a small explorer NASA mission tasked with mapping the boundary where winds from the Sun interact with winds from other stars. IBEX, the size of a bus tire, uses instruments that look toward the interstellar boundary from a nine-day orbit around Earth.
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) experienced a flight computer reset during a planned contact and the spacecraft went into contingency mode on Feb. 18.
While fight computer resets have happened before, this time the team lost the ability to command the spacecraft during the subsequent reset recovery. The team also was unsuccessful in regaining command capability by resetting ground systems hardware and software.
Flight software still is running, and the spacecraft systems appear to be functional. However, while uplink signals are reaching the spacecraft, commands are not processing.
If the mission team’s efforts to find and remedy the loss of command capability remain unsuccessful, IBEX will perform an autonomous reset and power cycle on March 4.
NASA will provide additional information on IBEX following the reset unless the agency is able to find a solution before.
The CubeSat to Study Solar Particles (CuSP) launched as an Artemis I payload on 1:47 AM EST on Nov. 16, 2022. CuSP was deployed from its canister about eight hours after launch. Approximately two hours after deployment, CuSP transmissions were received by an Open Loop Receiver (OLR) operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Radio Science Systems Group. The OLR recorded approximately 60 minutes of transmission from CuSP. Unfortunately, the CuSP team has not re-established contact with the CubeSat after the initial contact.
In the initial OLR contact (which was listening mode only) CuSP was operating mostly as expected. The solar arrays deployed, and they were stable and pointing at the Sun. However, anomalous software resets and temperature readings were reported during the contact.
NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) provided the mission team a downlink-only pass eight hours after deployment as well as a contact with CuSP 11 hours after deployment. CuSP radio transmissions were not detected during either of these DSN opportunities. No further radio transmissions have been received from CuSP during subsequent scheduled DSN contacts.
During the initial OLR contact period, CuSP experienced three software reboots. One ended during the start of the data collection period, one occurred in the middle of the data collection, and one occurred at the end. However, the OLR signal indicated that CuSP remained powered on after the last reboot.
An unexplained battery anomaly also occurred at the end of the initial data collection period. Two minutes prior to the end of the data collection period, one of the battery cells suddenly experienced a temperature spike – jumping from 34 degrees Celsius to more than 168 degrees Celsius in under a minute. The temperature of the anomalous cell subsequently increased from approximately 34 degrees Celsius to about 80 degrees Celsius before loss of contact.
The CuSP team is investigating the cause of the sudden battery temperature increase and working to find a solution. The team is also working to regain contact with the spacecraft.
CuSP was designed to be one of the first CubeSats to explore interplanetary space, the region around the Sun and planets of our solar system. This CubeSat’s objective is to study the solar wind particles and magnetic fields that stream from the Sun and the relationship of this solar wind to more energetic particles generated by solar activity.
A NASA scientist and night-sky fanatic chase the elusive lights across Oklahoma. The odds are not in their favor.
By Lina Tran
It wasn’t dark enough. We’d driven east for two hours from Oklahoma City, and still, a stubborn red light blinked from a nearby wind farm. Paul Smith sighed with frustration and drove on. When we left the hotel earlier that night, just two stars blinked in the sky. Light from a gas station and bowling alley, and, farther away, the bright halo of the city, outshone the rest. With each passing mile, past fields and onto tumbling dirt roads, more stars wriggled into focus. The city haze shrunk in the rearview mirror, and the sky darkened. But it wouldn’t do for Smith, who wanted the darkest skies he could find.
Smith is a night-sky fanatic and photographer. His obsession is sprites: immense jolts of light that flicker high above thunderstorms. Last October, he guided NASA scientist Dr. Burcu Kosar through the backroads of Oklahoma to catch one herself. Although she’d studied sprites for more than 15 years, she hadn’t yet chased one. My colleague Joy Ng and I, members of NASA’s communications team, tagged along for the ride.
Aside from their fleeting nature, sprites have little in common with their fairy-like namesakes. The towering sparks materialize around 45 miles above the ground or higher (most commercial airplanes fly at an altitude of five to seven miles). The clusters can stretch 10 miles across and 30 miles top to bottom. They take on complex shapes. “They’re like snowflakes; none are identical,” Kosar said. There are carrot sprites that look like a bunch pulled right out of the ground, tops, roots, and all. There are column sprites, majestic angels, and the white whale of sprite-chasing: jellyfish.
Sprites are elusive, but regular features of our skies. They have been detected over land and sea alike across most of the globe. Triggered by lightning, they appear at the boundary between the atmosphere and space.
By gathering images of the slippery phenomena from sprite-chasers, Kosar, who is based at NASA’sGoddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, hopes researchers can use this ground-based data to shed light on some of these questions. Her new citizen science project, Spritacular, invites sprite-chasers like Smith from around the globe to share their observations. The goal is to build a community where researchers and citizen scientists can share information and construct the first crowd-sourced sprite database.
Sprite-chasing could be considered a safer form of storm-chasing. A menacing storm is desirable. But because sprites appear above thunderstorms, for any hope of spotting one, you must look for them from far away. If the thunderstorm is overhead, not only will you get soaked, but any sprite will be obscured by clouds. Smith considers the sweet spot to be 100 to 300 miles away — far enough to see above the clouds. “You’re threading a needle between the storm strength, light pollution, and distance from the storm,” Smith said. Often, when he’s out driving, he notices spots that are dark, have a clearing where he can pull over safely and set up his cameras, and — even better — boast a beautiful view, maybe over a pond or next to a photogenic abandoned barn. He’ll drop a pin on a map in his phone — for later, should the weather take him that way again.
The first night of the chase, Smith was eyeing a storm cooking east of Oklahoma City. He pulled into a gravel lot between grassy fields and unpacked a heap of cameras and tripods, orienting them toward the inky east. Referring to the weather radar on his phone, Smith pointed our gaze in the storm’s direction. He estimated we were 150 to 200 miles away. Milky flashes of distant lightning pulsed low over the horizon. I didn’t even know I could see something so far away. We focused on the patch of sky about a fist’s width above the lightning: If the storm yielded sprites, that’s where they’d be.
Like fishing, sprite-chasing is characterized by long stretches of waiting interrupted by bursts of adrenaline that follow either the high of a successful catch or the loss of one that got away. Even with several cameras going, Smith caught countless frames of nothing but night. The longer we waited, the more our eyes adjusted to the dark. It became easier to detect the faintest motion in the sky: a plane, a satellite, a shooting star. “This is my therapy,” Smith said. The Milky Way stretched overhead. Slumbering cows grumbled their disapproval, and a party of coyotes yipped across the field.
An hour passed, and a gauzy blanket of clouds crept into view. “Clouds are our nemesis,” said Smith, defeated. Even if there were sprites, we wouldn’t be able to see them, so we packed our bags.
Oklahoma is a good place for sprite-chasing because the plains routinely generate fierce thunderstorms capable of producing them. But the height of sprite season runs from late spring to early summer when Oklahoma’s squalls are strongest. (On a good night, Smith might catch tens of sprites.) October was pushing it, but Smith and Kosar remained hopeful: A line of storms seemed to be rolling in from the southwest. The next day, we’d check the weather and try again.
Written accounts of strange flashes of light linked to storms date back to the 1700s.The earliest known report comes from German legal scholar Johann Georg Estor, who in 1730 described viewing a storm from a mountaintop perch in Vogelsberg, when he saw flashes of light “directly up into the sky.”
More than 200 years later, the spectacle was just as bewildering. In the 1980s, NASA pilots described lightning that struck upward, some 2,000 feet above their flight path. The light “shattered in all directions as an egg would do if it were thrown against a ceiling,” they reported. Because their observations weren’t captured on camera, the lightning science community largely disregarded the accounts. In a way, Kosar said, the study of sprites began with citizen scientists.
In the summer of 1989, a team of University of Minnesota scientists was testing a low-light camera and inadvertently captured a glowing blob high above the clouds. Videos taken from the Space Shuttle between 1989 and 1991 offered another view of the strange events. These captures unleashed a rush of interest in the upper atmosphere’s electric spectacles. After a 1994 airborne campaign caught the first sprites in color, and triangulated their position above storms, they were dubbed “sprites” for their elusive nature. Now we know they are the most commonly observed of an entire wonderland of finicky phenomena known as transient luminous events, whose ranks include ELVES, TROLLs, gnomes, pixies, halos, blue jets, gigantic jets, and blue glimpses.
There are two flavors of cloud-to-ground lightning, the kind that triggers sprites: positive and negative, depending on what kind of charge they send to the ground. Sprites are generated mainly by positive lightning, which tends to be about 10 times stronger than the negative variety. The odds can be daunting. Negative lightning far outnumbers the positive, with only about 10% of all lightning strikes being positive. And not every positive strike creates a sprite; Kosar estimates about 2% of positive strikes are powerful enough to trigger sprites. They require mighty squalls fueled by lots of churning, or convection. This churning creates the complex electrical environments inside thunderstorms that give rise to lightning strikes.
It works like this: When positive lightning sends charge surging groundward, it suddenly creates an electric field in the air, above the thunderstorm. This field stresses the thin upper atmosphere, rapidly heating electrically charged particles there. When those excited particles interact with nitrogen in the atmosphere, they produce bright red flashes of light. Scientists call this an electrical breakdown: what happens when something that doesn’t usually conduct electricity — air, in this case — receives a huge voltage, causing electric current to suddenly flow through it.
For Kosar, sprites were an obsession at first sight. She had just finished her undergraduate degree when she first saw a video of sprites. On camera, sprites may look like they’re composed of branches of lights, but in reality, each branch is created by fast-moving balls of light that barrel down the sky, splitting into ever-smaller pieces. “They looked like fireworks,” Kosar said. “Since each is unique, I can look at them all day and never get bored.” While sprites were a passion of Kosar’s, she often found herself occupied with other research at NASA. Then, a friend tagged her in a post in a Facebook group — the International Observers of Upper-Atmospheric Electric Phenomena — and she was hooked again.
Created in 2013, the online community now numbers more than 7,000 observers of transient luminous events worldwide. When members learned of her expertise, they began tagging Kosar in their posts, asking her to identify their captures or explain unique features. That’s how she met Smith, an active member of the group. It became impossible for Kosar to answer all the questions, and she began dreaming of a citizen science project that would leverage the expertise of the observers and connect them with researchers like herself. “I really admire these people,” Kosar said. “Catching sprites is not easy. What they are doing is phenomenal.”
A NASA mentor of Kosar’s had had success building such a project for aurora chasers. Meanwhile, another Goddard colleague, upper atmospheric scientist Dr. Jia Yue, persuaded Kosar the idea was worth pursuing, after he invited her to give a lecture about sprites to his class. Together, they drafted a proposal and won a grant to kick off the project.
Since 1989, sprites have been studied from the skies, space, and ground, but there’s still much to learn about them. Scientists don’t understand why sprites are displaced from their parent lightning flash, how they take on so many different shapes and sizes, and — crucially — what impacts they have in the atmosphere. However, because they’re so massive, sprites influence huge swathes of the sky.
By gathering observations from sprite-chasers and information on where and when they made them, Kosar can build a catalog of sprites, which would help chip away at these problems. With accurate time and location data, scientists can connect those observations to satellite data and records from NASA’s lightning mapping arrays or the National Lightning Detection Network. That would allow researchers to find each sprite’s so-called parent flash and identify properties of that lightning strike. They could also pull information on conditions in the storm and atmosphere when the sprite was born. “Speaking as a scientist who’s enthusiastic about these things, working with sprites-obsessed citizen scientists is amazing,” Kosar said. “Together, we’re going to build an invaluable database.”
Seeing a sprite is a very different experience from catching a sprite. To the human eye, they are merely a flicker of light over the horizon. This speed belies their complexity. Armed with tripods, low-light cameras, and long exposures, sprite-chasers can reveal their fine details. This is yet another reason why dark skies are crucial: Light pollution would wash out the long exposures used to catch sprites. (With dark skies and an unobstructed view of a faraway storm, basic gear — like a DSLR camera on the right settings — can hook sprites successfully. But Smith admits to being a gearhead. Although we drove a large SUV that could seat six comfortably, the back half of the car was filled with camera gear.).
On the second night of sprite-chasing, Smith set his sights on a deluge brewing a couple hundred miles away. He scans the radar daily, looking for storms with potential. The more intense the storm, the higher the odds it will produce sprites. Radar indicates the strength of the storm and what direction it’s traveling in. At the beginning of the trip, my teammate and video producer Ng pressed Smith for his forecast of our week in town. But beyond a three-day forecast, “it’s pretty much reading tarot cards,” he told her.
Smith had always been fascinated with the night sky. He spent many winters working as a surveyor in Canada’s Northwest Territories, stomping through snow aglow with the green light of the auroras. He captured his first sprite by accident. He was in the Mojave Desert, photographing the Perseid meteor showers, when he noticed the glint of distant lightning. A lifelong photographer, he snapped a photo. Later, he looked at the image and spotted a thin red line above the lightning. He’d heard of sprites before but was amazed to learn it was possible to capture them on camera. Since then, any sprite he caught was no accident, but the product of dogged planning.
“I suffer from FOMO,” Smith said. The fear of missing out on a sprite — that’s what compels him to drive night after night. When he does capture a sprite, he thrills at the knowledge that no one else in the world has seen what he has or caught what he did. Nighttime photography was a way for him to share what goes on while others slumber, each photo a glimpse of a world in which the sky exhibits all kinds of strange behavior.
And so, weather and life permitting, Smith chases sprites as often as he can. He has self-imposed a 2-hour-drive limit for promising storms — the farther you drive to catch a sprite, the farther you must drive to get back home — but it’s easy to convince himself to press farther. When we met him, he was also training to be a nurse; the long shifts followed by days off suit his nocturnal obsession. In a good month, he might go out 15 to 20 nights.
Our second spot was not so different from the first, at least as far as we could tell at night. It was remote, empty, and far from the city. Crickets chirped in the grass, armadillos rustled nearby. We’d spent some time driving around, trying to avoid a flashing light from a wind turbine, but the empty field was the only place with a clear view. We parked on an unpaved road and looked east.
The light annoyed Smith, who admitted to being a perfectionist. “I just find even the smallest light so oppressive,” he said. “Out here it’s like beautiful sky, beautiful dark, then — eep, eep!” He made a high-pitched beeping sound. I knew what he meant. Beneath the dark sky, those disturbances become loud as a shriek. I tried to focus on the patch of sky above the lightning, but the blinking tugged my gaze its way.
We shuffled on our feet, debating whether we should get back in the car and drive on for a better vantage point. Smith interrupted with a yell. “Sprite!” He hopped to the left, caught off-guard. “That was a sprite!” he said. A giddiness set over him, but he soon realized that he hadn’t yet unpacked the gear or set up his cameras. This was, he said, a classic rookie mistake. I chided myself for not catching the blip of light with my own eyes. Still, our moods lifted. If the clouds produced one sprite, surely they could produce more.
Once the chase begins, it’s difficult to stop. There’s always the hope of another flash. Five minutes more grows into 10, then 20, then 30. Then, suddenly, it’s 1 a.m. and you still have to drive home. After a couple hours, the pause between flashes of lightning grew longer. The storm was dying down. Smith had seen a sprite, but not caught it. Bleary-eyed and empty-handed, we packed our bags. It was a quiet drive back in the early morning, and the fluorescent city greeted us upon our return.
By the last night of sprite-chasing, the group was weary. We’d logged at least 700 miles of driving across Oklahoma. Everyone was low on sleep — twice that week, we’d gone to bed between 3 and 5 a.m. — and still, there were no sprites preserved on our camera’s memory cards. We agreed to push it for the last night of the trip, driving three hours southeast of the city to get within range of a growing storm over the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.
We set up on the shore of Sardis Lake, a reservoir dotted with shadows of islands and surrounded by gentle hills. The wide ribbon of the Milky Way unrolled above us. Kosar and Smith conferred over the radar. Something was not right. During the drive the system weakened. When we set out for the park, lightning strikes flared every 100 seconds. Now, the sky flashed every 1,000 seconds or so. Kosar faced the horizon, willing lights to appear.
Meanwhile, a thunderstorm nearly 400 miles away, somewhere in Mississippi, teased Smith. He checked the radar and shook his head. “I just know it’s spriting over there,” he said. He worried about the long range, but the storm looked — as he put it — juicy. He proposed driving to another spot in the park, into its line of sight. The group agreed it was worth a shot, and we packed and unpacked the gear once more.
We set up camp on a thin land bridge slicing through the lake. The water lapped quietly at the roadside. Smith showed Kosar how to fish for sprites in video — immediately punching “record” after each flash of lightning; later, individual images could be isolated from the video. She frowned with concentration.The horizon flashed like a weak heartbeat. The night was clear and calm, even as we witnessed the sky break into a storm two states away.
Light interrupted the dark sky, and a shout broke the silence.
“Sprite!” Kosar and Smith yelled. They peered at the camera and replayed the recording, giddy with excitement. Eight strokes of red light darted into view: a set of column sprites.
“You can’t even yell the word ‘sprite’ before it’s over,” I said. “Not even ‘s’,” Kosar said.
Ng and I hadn’t spotted the sprite with our own eyes, but took satisfaction in witnessing a successful capture. Kosar played the recording over and over, and we cheered every time the columns flitted on screen. “I see how addictive this is,” she said. “I never want to leave.” She’d caught one sprite, and now she wanted another.
We dawdled that night, delaying our departure. I thought of the sprites we might have missed on the drive or sprites that might appear after we left, with no one around to see. The next time a storm raged overhead, I would think of sprites again. At 1 a.m., we tore ourselves away. Above, the deep sky seared with potential.♦
Watch the Video: Chasing Sprites in Electric Skies
NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are determining how to move forward with the joint Geotail mission since discovering the spacecraft’s last operational data recorder has failed.
Originally, Geotail was equipped with two data recorders to collect the mission’s scientific data. One data recorder failed in 2012 after 20 years of gathering information about the plasma environment around Earth. The remaining data recorder continued collecting data for 10 more years until it experienced an anomaly on June 28, 2022.
The team at JAXA discovered the error with the recorder and have been performing tests to investigate the cause and extent of the damage. Ongoing attempts to recover the recorder have been unsuccessful. Without a functioning recorder, the science data from the U.S. instruments can no longer be collected or downlinked. NASA, ISAS, and JAXA are deciding the best path forward for the mission given the failure.
Geotail launched on July 24, 1992, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with the primary goal of studying the structure and dynamics of the tail region of the Earth’s magnetosphere – the area of space surrounding Earth that is controlled by Earth’s magnetic field – using a comprehensive set of scientific instruments. With an elongated orbit, Geotail has spent the last 30 years sailing through the invisible boundaries of the magnetosphere, gathering data on the physical process at play there. Geotail has made many scientific breakthroughs, including helping scientists better understand what causes material from the Sun to pass into the magnetosphere. It has also made discoveries outside its intended scope, such as identifying oxygen, silicon, sodium, and aluminum in the lunar atmosphere.
I recently had the honor of giving the laureate lecture on behalf of Eugene “Gene” Parker, winner of the Crafoord Prize in Astronomy. It was one of the biggest moments of my career. It was also one of the hardest.
Gene received the award in 2020 “for pioneering and fundamental studies of the solar wind and magnetic fields from stellar to galactic scales,” however, due to the pandemic, the official prize ceremony in Lund, Sweden, was postponed for two years. Since Gene was unable to travel, a special ceremony at Gene’s home was hosted by the University of Chicago in November 2021 where I presented him with the Crafoord medal.
Gene was a remarkable man and I knew him personally, which should have made talking about him during the public lecture easier. During his time as a scientist, he authored four books and more than 400 scientific peer-reviewed papers – many as the sole author. He also won a host of awards and honors, including the prestigious and coveted Crafoord Prize.
The Crafoord Prize is the highest honor awarded in the field of astronomy. It is the Nobel Prize equivalent for the field and carries with it a cash prize of over $600,000.
Known as the father of heliophysics, Gene’s discoveries are foundational to what we know about space weather and how stars behave. His level of brilliance is rare – you see it once, maybe twice, in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. He described the discovery of the solar wind as “simple.” It was derived from just four lines of algebra.
Gene’s passing on March 15, 2022, made the assignment of giving the lecture on his behalf even harder. I lost a friend and mentor, Gene’s family lost a husband and father, and humanity lost a legend.
Since I knew Gene personally, it should have made talking about him easier. How exactly does one describe the person that discovered the solar wind and changed the course of astronomy with his magnetic field findings? How in the world do I accurately describe and articulate Gene’s genius? I desperately wanted to do it right, and as I wrote and rewrote what I was going to say I realized that words in and of themselves were inadequate.
In 2017, the Solar Probe Plus mission was renamed Parker Solar Probe in honor of Gene. It was the first time a NASA mission has ever been named for a living person. In 2018, I stood with Gene and we watched in awe (I screamed and cheered, and he stared silently mesmerized) as Gene’s namesake mission launched and began its journey. Since its launch, Parker has been continuously setting and breaking records, including fastest human-made object and closest human-made object to the Sun. It has studied comets, returned valuable data on the planet Venus, and provided new information about the dust near our Sun.
On April 28, 2021, Parker Solar Probe flew through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and sampled particles and magnetic fields there. In other words, Parker Solar Probe “touched” the Sun. The mission named after Gene and that built upon his work touched the Sun.
During the laureate lecture for the Crafoord Symposium, I talked about Gene and what he meant to me. I also talked about Parker Solar Probe’s accomplishments. I realized that the science could say and do what I couldn’t – properly honor Gene. Parker Solar Probe is a one-of-a-kind mission that has accomplished feats beyond what the world thought was possible – and it’s not done yet. Gene Parker was a one-of-a-kind man that accomplished feats unimaginable in his time and his work will continue to be the foundation that produces bigger and bolder discoveries.
By Nicola Fox Heliophysics Division Director, NASA HQ, Washington
NASA’s citizen science projects are collaborations between scientists and interested members of the public. Through these collaborations, volunteers known as citizen scientists have helped make thousands of important scientific discoveries. Aurorasaurus is one such project that tracks auroras around the world in real time via reports on its website and on Twitter.
Aurorasaurus often partners with other organizations to complement science with citizen science and recently Aurorasauraus partnered with NASA’s Loss through Auroral Microburst Pulsations (LAMP) mission. Early on the morning of Saturday, March 5, 2022, the LAMP mission successfully took flight, flying straight into a pulsating aurora.
Pulsating auroras are quirky, shy auroral forms. They occur within diffuse auroras, and look like pulsating patches toward the equator that turn on and off every few seconds. They also have irregular shapes that reappear. They usually occur late in the night or early in the morning, after the main arcs have subsided. They dance often but are less frequently caught on camera due to their dimness and timing. Because auroras reveal invisible structures and pulsating auroras are caused by electrons with huge amounts of energy, pulsating auroras are important for studying how our planet gets energy from space.
The LAMP team included several of Aurorasaurs’ superuser group, the Aurorasaurus Ambassadors, who were excited to work together on a citizen science campaign around the mission. As part of the citizen science collaboration, the Aurorasaurus and LAMP teams asked for citizen scientists’ questions about pulsating aurora. Here are their answers.
What is the difference between the aurora that looks like a curtain and that which just looks like a fuzzy patch or cloud in the sky?
Auroras that look like curtains are called “discrete auroras,” and auroras that look like a fuzzy patch or cloud are called “diffuse auroras.” There’s a lot of science that goes into which makes an appearance at what time of night, and it can differ depending on your location.
If you are watching from the auroras’ usual location at high latitudes—for example, from Fairbanks, Alaska, or Reykjavik, Iceland—you can see auroras caused by geomagnetic storms, which are caused by intense storms of particles and energy from the Sun. But more commonly you’ll see regular, smaller “auroral substorms.” These are caused by a different process. Both diffuse and discrete auroras happen as part of the natural progression of the more common process called a substorm.
If you are watching from mid-latitudes like North Dakota or southern Alberta, the aurora you see will likely be caused by a geomagnetic storm. Stronger storms generate both types of aurora and tend to push the auroras further down toward the equator.
Is it normal to have pulsating aurora and other kinds of aurora in the sky together?
Yes, it is very common for pulsating aurora to appear alongside other types. Depending on your location, you might see part or all of the sky pulsating. Much like discrete auroras, pulsating auroras fan out across great distances and are visible from different perspectives, based on your location. You could even find yourself in a special location where, in addition to pulsating auroras, you can see discrete aurora evolving to the north and diffuse aurora pulsing to the south, with a distinct edge between the two.
There are also many different sub-types of pulsating aurora. Some form shapes that hold their edges like a patch turning on and off, while some “whoosh” on and off in curling, dragonlike shapes. Another type of aurora forms shapes that are unusually flat, like pancakes in the sky. Seeing one of these types might mean that there’s some interesting science going on in the Earth’s ionized upper atmosphere, or in the way particles rain down from space. Citizen scientists’ photos of these displays from multiple locations may help scientists find more clues to the mystery of how they occur.
I am curious about the speed of the pulsating aurora and what makes it dance so fast. It is almost like being in an outdoor nightclub!
Pulsating auroras can dance slowly or quickly, and can flash both pink and green. They can especially give a nightclub effect when multiple things are happening at once. Here are two factors that contribute to the lights turning on and off, which is a time-based or “temporal” effect.
Pulsating auroras we think are caused by special waves called “chorus waves” interacting with particles in near-Earth space. The waves can give the particles energy, bouncing them into the atmosphere. The frequency of groups of chorus waves is the frequency at which the particles are being thrown into the upper atmosphere, and therefore the frequency of the patchy pulsations that you see. Sometimes, there are even higher-speed variations embedded in the light that are not visible to the naked eye or regular cameras.
Extra-fast, pink flashes are caused by the chemistry of nitrogen gas. The colors of aurora are made when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere are energized and then release that extra energy as light. Different gases make different colors, and the release process happens at different speeds for different kinds. Nitrogen, which makes a pink color, emits light very quickly—faster than oxygen green—so the pink appears to move faster.
Put these together and you can get brilliant, rapid displays!
Can I see pulsating aurora in Washington state?
Yes, pulsating aurora may occur at mid-latitudes during larger geomagnetic storms. Keep an eye on Aurorasaurus and our Storm Tracker chart to help track auroral activity. And if you see pulsating aurora, you can make a citizen science report to Aurorasaurus! Pulsating auroras can be enormous, and cover hundreds of miles, so the more locations they are reported from, the more our scientific understanding can grow. The project is grateful to all those who submitted reports during the LAMP mission campaign.
Why is it important to send instruments above the pulsating aurora to measure it? What things can’t be measured from the ground or satellites?
While satellites and ground-based observations can capture some aspects, we can gain a better picture of the cause of auroral dynamics by collecting particles within or very near to the aurora. To do this, scientists send instruments to collect data at and just above the location of the aurora, using a special type of rocket known as a sounding rocket, which can fly into auroras.
Sounding rockets provide a unique way to capture data about the aurora in situ in regions that are otherwise hard to sample. Sounding rockets also move more slowly than satellites, so they can better capture rapidly-moving phenomena like auroras in exquisite detail. This can help scientists learn more about “microphysics,” the physics of waves interacting with tiny, charged particles. On March 5, 2022, a sounding rocket launched LAMP to about 267 miles up where it flew through a pulsating aurora.
On March 5, 2022, a sounding rocket launched LAMP to about 267 miles up where it flew through a pulsating aurora. In addition, LAMP also had two cameras on board to take photos of the aurora, from a Japanese team including members from JAXA, Nagoya University, Tohoku University, Kyushu Institute of Technology, and the University of Electro-Communications. Because the rocket itself rotates about once per second, the cameras were mounted on a “de-spun” platform. The platform rotates in the opposite direction of the rocket at the same rate as it spins, so the cameras can stay relatively still and take clear pictures. The camera provided real-time still images of the pulsating patches to the scientists on the ground. This was the first time that a camera with a de-spun platform mounted to a rocket has been successfully demonstrated!
Has rocket citizen science been done before?
Yes! Aurorasaurus helped connect two-woman citizen science team Hearts in the Ice with a rocket mission in Norway during their time overwintering in Svalbard. Read more here.
What’s it like to help with a mission like this?
Pretty amazing, according to Aurorasaurus Ambassador and senior undergraduate student at the University of North Dakota,Vincent Ledvina, who helped with the launch:
I just got back from Fort Yukon, Alaska, where Aurorasaurus helped connect me with an opportunity to assist with the NASA LAMP sounding rocket mission. It was eye-opening and rewarding to watch the team effort, and I am grateful to Aurorasaurus and the LAMP team for opening this door to me. Seeing all the moving parts (literally and figuratively) that have to come together in order for the mission to be a success makes me realize how important communication and leadership are in science. Logistics in remote areas is a challenge I never fully realized until this mission. Although I was staying at an Air Force station, I only had access to a low-bandwidth satellite internet connection with no cell service, so the most reliable communication was a landline phone that looked straight from the 1980s!
While I had some sense of how aurora cameras work from the North Dakota Dual Auroral Camera (NoDDAC) project, I finally got a taste of what real science-grade cameras are like. My job was to make sure three special cameras — some of which were from the Japanese rocket team — were running when the LAMP rocket launched, to capture video of pulsating aurora. The video will be correlated with data the rocket gathered as it flew through the aurora.
Pulsating aurora is a fascinating and mysterious phenomenon, and Auroasaurus looks forward to seeing what the data gathered by LAMP will reveal. They are grateful to all the citizen scientists who sent in questions—especially Michelle and Tracy—submitted photos of pulsating aurora, and shared info about the mission! Thank you for your interest and contributions.
Using a NASA-funded CubeSat, scientists have uncovered a new source of super-fast, energetic electrons raining down on our planet, which can have implications for space infrastructure and atmospheric modeling.
Scientists from the University of California Los Angles (UCLA) observed this rain, known as “electron precipitation”, from low-Earth orbit using the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation, or ELFIN, mission. ELFIN is a pair of small, cube-shaped satellites known as CubeSats. It was built and operated by UCLA undergraduate and graduate students under guidance from small team of staff mentors.
Combining ELFIN data with more distant observations from NASA’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS, spacecraft, the scientists determined that the electron rain was caused by whistler waves, a type of electromagnetic wave that ripples through plasma in space. Their results, published in Nature Communications, found more electron precipitation than leading theories had previously predicted.
“ELFIN is the first satellite to measure these super-fast electrons,” said Xiaojia Zhang, lead author on the new paper and researcher in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences (EPSS). “The mission is yielding new insights due to its unique vantage point.”
The near-Earth space environment is highly dynamic and filled with charged particles orbiting in giant rings around the planet called Van Allen radiation belts. Similar to a coiled slinky bouncing back and forth between two hands, electrons in the radiation belts travel in spirals between Earth’s North and South magnetic poles. Under certain conditions, electromagnetic vibrations called whistler waves can occur in the radiation belts, energizing and speeding up the electrons so much that they can be lost into the atmosphere, creating the electron rain.
Combining THEMIS observations of whistler waves, ELFIN’s electron data and sophisticated computer modeling, the team saw how the whistler waves caused a rapid torrent of electrons to flow into the atmosphere, far beyond the amount expected from previous theories. Current space weather models do not account for this extra electron flow, which not only contributes to dazzling auroras, but can damage low-orbiting satellites and affect atmospheric chemistry.
“It’s truly a rewarding feeling to have increased our knowledge of space science, using data from the hardware we built ourselves,” said Colin Wilkins, co-author, instrument lead, and space physics doctoral student in EPSS. “It takes tremendous effort and determination behind the scenes to make that happen.”
The team further showed that this type of radiation belt loss to the atmosphere can increase significantly during geomagnetic storms, which are disturbances caused by enhanced solar activity that can affect near-Earth space. Existing models do not account for this, thus underestimating the effects of electron precipitation.
Factoring in the impact of electron losses on the atmosphere is important not only for terrestrial modeling, but also for understanding Earth’s magnetic environment and predicting hazards to satellites, astronauts, and other space infrastructure. Although space is commonly thought to be separate from our upper atmosphere, the two are inextricably linked. Understanding how they’re linked can benefit satellites and astronauts passing through the region, which are increasingly important for commerce, Earth monitoring, telecommunications, and tourism.
“The ELFIN mission has given UCLA students the chance to work on an industry-caliber project right on campus, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to accomplish so much with over 300 undergraduate students without sacrificing the quality of the science,” said Ethan Tsai, co-author, project manager, and doctoral student in space physics. “Data from the ELFIN satellites are at the cutting edge of space weather studies and will be heavily used by researchers around the world over the next decade, so we’ve worked very hard to make our data open and easily accessible to the entire space science community.”