Strongest solar storm in nearly 6 years slams into Earth catching forecasters by surprise
The most powerful solar storm in nearly six years slammed Earth today (March 24), but strangely, space weather forecasters didn’t see it coming.
The geomagnetic storm peaked as a severe G4 on the 5-grade scale used by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to assess the severity of space weather events. The storm’s unexpected ferocity not only made auroras visible as far south as New Mexico in the U.S., but it also forced spaceflight company Rocket Lab to delay a launch by 90 minutes.
Geomagnetic storms are disturbances to Earth’s magnetic field caused by solar material from coronal mass ejections (CME) — large expulsions of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s atmosphere. It turns out that this particular geomagnetic storm was triggered by a “stealth” CME which — as the name suggests — is rather tricky to detect.
NOAA’s National Space Weather Service originally announced a “geomagnetic storm watch” on March 22 (opens in new tab), to come into effect on 23-25 March with possible moderate G2 storm conditions expected on March 24. So forecasters weren’t completely caught off-guard, they however didn’t expect a magnitude G4 storm.
It wasn’t until 00:41 a.m. EDT ( 0441 GMT) on March 24 that NOAA uprated the warning to a severe G4 storm, which was after a stronger than forecasted G3 storm (opens in new tab)escalated to a G4 at 12:04 a.m. EDT (0404 GMT).
U.S. space weather forecaster Tamitha Skov explained to Space.com in an email why the space weather community got it so wrong with this latest storm.
“These nearly invisible storms launch much more slowly than eruptive CMEs and are very difficult to observe leaving the sun‘s surface without specialized training,” she said, adding that the stealth CMEs can also be “camouflaged” by other, more dense structures emanating from the sun, which makes them difficult to observe.
“This is why they are the cause of “problem geomagnetic storms” like the G4-level storm we are in now.” Skov continued.
You can learn more about these stealthy solar storms in Skov’s latest YouTube video (opens in new tab) where she describes the space weather event in more detail.
NOAA (opens in new tab) ranks geomagnetic storms on a scale running from G1, which could cause an increase in auroral activity around the poles and minor fluctuations in power supplies, up to G5, which includes extreme cases like the Carrington Event — a colossal solar storm that occurred September 1859, which disrupted telegraph services all over the world and triggered auroras so bright and powerful that they were visible as far south as the Bahamas.
Strong geomagnetic storms can be troublesome for spaceflight as they increase the density of gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere, thereby increasing the drag on satellites and other spacecraft. In February 2022 SpaceX lost up to 40 brand-new Starlink satellites when they failed to reach orbit after being launched into a minor geomagnetic storm.
Rocket Lab delayed its launch this morning by approximately 90 minutes while assessing the evolving conditions (opens in new tab) of the geomagnetic storm, the company announced on Twitter. They successfully launched at 5:14 a.m. EDT (0914 GMT).
Another side effect of powerful geomagnetic storms is the incredible aurora displays they trigger. When energized particles from the sun slam into Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 45 million mph (72 million kph), our planet’s magnetic field funnels the particles toward the poles. The ensuing supercharging of molecules in Earth’s atmosphere triggers the colorful spectacles, which usually remain limited to areas at high latitudes. This time, skywatchers around the world were treated to a dazzling auroral display that reached as far south as Colorado and New Mexico.
We can expect more extreme space weather events like this powerful geomagnetic storm as the sun builds towards a peak in its 11-year solar activity cycle, expected to occur in 2025.
Made-in-Saskatchewan satellite heading to orbit on SpaceX rocket
SASKATOON – Saskatchewan engineering students will have their eyes on the sky as the province’s first homegrown satellite is to be launched on board a SpaceX rocket headed for the International Space Station.
“I am so excited about it,” said Rylee Moody, a third-year student at the University of Saskatchewan.
“It’s something I would never have dreamed of doing.”
Engineering students at the University of Saskatchewan spent five years developing the cube satellite called RADSAT-SK. It is set to be launched into space Saturday.
RADSAT-SK will be sent into its own orbit for a year, where it will collect radiation data that will be analyzed at a ground station located near the university’s campus.
The project was part of a Canadian Space Agency project that saw 15 universities get grants to build CubeSats — cubical, standard-sized miniature satellites that generally weigh about a kilogram.
Sean Maw, a principal investigator and chair in innovative teaching at the College of Engineering, said Saskatchewan’s project began in 2018 with about 20 engineering undergraduate students. Since then, hundreds of students have put in tens of thousands of hours to ensure ideas became reality.
It was no easy task to get from a satellite concocted in a Saskatchewan university to infinity and beyond. Students designed, built, tested and integrated the satellite.
They also navigated the complicated international regulatory environment to get it approved for launch. A global pandemic certainly didn’t make it easier, Maw added.
“Students persevered through the whole COVID crisis to get this project done,” Maw said. “Especially in the last 12 months or so they fought tooth and nail to get RADSAT-SK to the finish line.”
The team came up with a motto to get through the tough times: fail hard, fail fast, recover.
The satellite’s payload, what it carries as it orbits earth, is focused on radiation research. A Saskatchewan-made dosimeter board will measure radiation from space and a fungal melanin coating on board will test the feasibility of the polymer to shield space radiation.
Arliss Sidlowksi, a fourth-year student, said it has been an incredible and challenging experience getting the satellite ready for orbit.
“I am so proud of our team for their resilience,” she said.
“We experienced numerous challenges over the years. Our members viewed each setback as an opportunity to learn, adapt and proving time and time again their perseverance and intelligence.”
Sidlowksi said she hopes it will inspire other students to see themselves working in the space industry while also showing the rest of the country what Saskatchewan has to offer.
“I think it’s really opening up Saskatchewan to the space sector.”
It’s very important students have the support to dream for the stars, Maw added. Decades ago when he was getting his undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo he brought a group of students together to build a satellite.
The project wasn’t supported. And the satellite never got off ground.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen to these guys,” Maw said.
“Their efforts were truly remarkable.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
Why do animals keep evolving into crabs?
A flat, rounded shell. A tail that’s folded under the body. This is what a crab looks like, and apparently what peak performance might look like — at least according to evolution. A crab-like body plan has evolved at least five separate times among decapod crustaceans, a group that includes crabs, lobsters and shrimp. In fact, it’s happened so often that there’s a name for it: carcinization.
So why do animals keep evolving into crab-like forms? Scientists don’t know for sure, but they have lots of ideas.
Carcinization is an example of a phenomenon called convergent evolution, which is when different groups independently evolve the same traits. It’s the same reason both bats and birds have wings. But intriguingly, the crab-like body plan has emerged many times among very closely related animals.
The fact that it’s happening at such a fine scale “means that evolution is flexible and dynamic,” Javier Luque, a senior research associate in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, told Live Science.
Related: Does evolution ever go backward?
Crustaceans have repeatedly gone from having a cylindrical body plan with a big tail — characteristic of a shrimp or a lobster — to a flatter, rounder, crabbier look, with a much less prominent tail. The result is that many crustaceans that resemble crabs, like the tasty king crab that’s coveted as a seafood delicacy, aren’t even technically “true crabs.” They’ve adopted a crab-like body plan, but actually belong to a closely related group of crustaceans called “false crabs.”
When a trait appears in an animal and sticks around through generations, it’s a sign that the trait is advantageous for the species — that’s the basic principle of natural selection. Animals with crabby forms come in many sizes and thrive in a wide array of habitats, from mountains to the deep sea. Their diversity makes it tricky to pin down a single common benefit for their body plan, said Joanna Wolfe, a research associate in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University.
Wolfe and colleagues laid out a few possibilities in a 2021 paper in the journal BioEssays. For example, crabs’ tucked-in tail, versus the lobster’s much more prominent one, could reduce the amount of vulnerable flesh that’s accessible to predators. And the flat, rounded shell could help a crab scuttle sideways more effectively than a cylindrical lobster body would allow.
But more research is needed to test those hypotheses, Wolfe said. She is also trying to use genetic data to better understand the relationships among different decapod crustaceans, to more accurately pinpoint when various “crabby” lineages evolved, and pick apart the factors driving carcinization.
There’s another possible explanation: “It’s possible that having a crab body isn’t necessarily advantageous, and maybe it’s a consequence of something else in the organism,” Wolfe said. For example, the crab body plan might be so successful not because of the shell or tail shape itself, but because of the possibilities that this shape opens up for other parts of the body, said Luque, who is a co-author of the 2021 paper with Wolfe.
For example, a lobster’s giant tail can propel the animal through the water and help it crush prey. But it can also get in the way and constrain other features, Luque said. The crab body shape might leave more flexibility for animals to evolve specialized roles for their legs beyond walking, allowing crabs to easily adapt to new habitats. Some crabs have adapted their legs for digging under sediment or paddling through water.
“We think that the crab body plan has evolved so many times independently because of the versatility that the animals have,” Luque said. “That allows them to go places that no other crustaceans have been able to go.”
The crab-like body plan also has been lost multiple times over evolutionary time — a process known as decarcinization.
“Crabs are flexible and versatile,” Luque explained. “They can do a lot of things back and forth.”
Wolfe thinks of crabs and other crustaceans like Lego creations: They have many different components that can be swapped out without dramatically changing other features. So it’s relatively straightforward for a cylindrical body to flatten out, or vice versa. But for better or worse, humans won’t be turning into crabs anytime soon. “Our body isn’t modular like that,” Wolfe said. “[Crustaceans] already have the right building blocks.”
Rocket Lab Launches Second Batch of TROPICS Satellites
Ibadan, 29 May 2023. – Rocket Lab USA, Inc. has successfully completed the second of two dedicated Electron launches to deploy a constellation of tropical cyclone monitoring satellites for NASA. The “Coming To A Storm Near You” launch lifted off on May 26 at 15:46 NZST (03:46 UTC) from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, deploying the final two CubeSats of NASA’s TROPICS constellation to orbit.
“Coming To A Storm Near You” is Rocket Lab’s second of two TROPICS launches for NASA, following the first launch on May 8th NZST. Like the previous launch, “Coming To A Storm Near You” deployed a pair of shoebox-sized satellites to low Earth orbit to collect tropical storm data more frequently than other weather satellites. The constellation aims to help increase understanding of deadly storms and improve tropical cyclone forecasts.
Rocket Lab has now launched all four satellites across two dedicated launches within 18 days, enabling the TROPICS satellites to settle into their orbits and begin commissioning ahead of the 2023 North American storm season, which begins in June.
“Electron was for exactly these kinds of missions – to deploy spacecraft reliably and on rapid timelines to precise and bespoke orbits, so we’re proud to have delivered that for NASA across both TROPICS launches and meet the deadline for getting TROPICS to orbit in time for the 2023 storm season,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Thank you to the team at NASA for entrusting us with such an important science mission, we’re grateful to be your mission launch providers once again.”
‘Coming To A Storm Near You’ was Rocket Lab’s fifth mission for 2023 and the Company’s 37th Electron mission overall. It brings the total number of satellites launched into orbit by Rocket Lab to 163.
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