The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

California fires don't harm observatories
Smoke and ash from raging fires in southern California are preventing many astronomers from observing, but observatories remain safe from the flames: Ast.
Update # 263 of Friday, October 31, 2003
Earth takes CME double hit, feels two geomagnetic storms in a row / The great(?) comets of 2004 / TV channel sponsors optical 4-m telescope!

Earth takes effectful double hit from Coronal Mass Ejections after sudden surge in solar activity

Minor effects on technical systems reported - but bright aurorae at low latitudes

It's now more than three years after the maximum of solar cycle, but a sudden surge of activity starting in mid-October has led to some of the most powerful flares ever recorded - and two major geomagnetic storms in a row! Responsible for both flares was Activity Region (10)486 which was the site of an X17.2 flare on October 28 and and an X10 on October 29: Both were accompanied by major coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which headed straight to Earth - and hit it full power, in contrast to several other flares some days earlier which mere gave our planet a glancing blow. Now it was different, and the increased solar activity even had an effect on the International Space Station: the Expedition 8 crew had to spend brief periods of time in the aft end of the Zvezda Service Module, which is the location aboard the Station most shielded from higher levels of radiation.

"We're going to get hit again!" the normally sober Center for Astrophysics shouted in a press release on Oct. 30: "Just when we thought we were through the worst of it, a second gigantic solar flare has erupted, sending another coronal mass ejection directly towards Earth. [...] 'It's like the Earth is looking right down the barrel of a giant gun pointed at us by the Sun ... and it's taken two big shots at us,' says John Kohl, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics [...] 'The Sun is really churned up. The timing of two very large X-class flares aimed directly at the Earth, occurring one right after another, is unprecedented,' says Kohl. 'I have not seen anything like it in my entire career as a solar physicist. The probability of this happening is so low that it is a statistical anomaly.'"

The activity had started on October 28 with a giant solar flare - the second biggest ever seen by SOHO, the ESA-NASA solar observatory that maintains a constant watch on the Sun, monitoring these events as they happen. A few minutes later, spacecraft circling the Earth began to detect high levels of energetic radiation, capable of blinding satellites and causing increased radiation levels down to normal aircraft cruising altitudes. About 24 hours after the solar flare was observed, an accompanying coronal mass ejection - a giant cloud of magnetised plasma - reached the Earth, causing rapid changes in the Earth's magnetic field and what is known as a geomagnetic storm. This storm caused widespread disruption to communications; both satellite-based and HF radio. And at the same time auroral activity surged, even in low latitude areas - and did so again one night later, when the Oct. 29 CME hit.

Solar eruptions of this type together with the associated increased radiation levels and electromagnetic disturbances around the Earth have real immediate and long-term economic impacts. During the last few days, space weather related problems have been detected on spacecraft operated by a range of agencies across the globe and operations teams are on alert. On Earth, telecommunication links have been disrupted and steps have been taken to safeguard aircraft, which including some changes in scheduling. Effects have also been detected in high latitude power grids and are being carefully monitored. These events are truly sporadic and extremely difficult to predict - but with the two CMEs of late October 2003 all the forecasts of major effects turned out to be true.

ESA Press Releases of Oct. 30 [SN], Oct. 28 [alt.], Oct. 24 and various dates, CfA Press Releases of Oct. 30 and Oct. 28, NASA Press Releases of Oct. 30 and Oct. 24, USAF Reports of Oct. 30, Oct. 28 and Oct. 22 and SEC, U Iowa, AIP, GFZ and House Science Com. Press Releases.
NOAA announcements of Oct. 30, Oct. 29, Oct. 28, Oct. 24, Oct. 23, Oct. 22 and Oct, 21, a Halo Mail and a list of 'top flares'.
Pictures (and reports) of the aurorae by Wulff, Dzieran, Wiebke, Sascha, Jens, Lüthen and in a growing gallery.
Pictures of the Sun in (mostly) white light of Oct. 30, 29, 28 (also by Hochrat), 27, 26, 25, 24 by Paice (also by Joye and Bennion), 23 (also by Nolf, Ng and Blomquist), 22, 21, 20.
Coverage of Oct. 31: New Sci., BBC, USA Today, CSM, AFP 2, 1, SC, BdW, NZ, Welt, RP. Oct. 30: S&T, DW, ARRL, WP, BBC, AFP 2, 1, SF Gate, AP, Rtr, SC 3, 2, 1, ST, Welt, NZ. Oct. 29: APOD, Nat'l Geogr., Dsc., New Sci., WP, AFP, USA Today, SC 3, 2, 1, CNN, SF Gate, ST, NZ (earlier).
Earlier coverage: Ast., SN, CNN (earlier), BBC (earlier, still earlier, even earlier, still earlier), FT, SC (earlier, still earlier), SN, New Sci., ARRL, Rtr, WP, Seattle T., USA T., S&T, ABC, PA, CBC, ST, RP.
Earlier CMEs from AR (10)484: SOHO Pick.

Daily solar views: Big Bear S.O., various sites, SOHO. CME alerts: SpaceW. What if the transit of Venus was now? Raab's vision. Current solar maps: Raben.
A solar 'superstorm' in 1859, finally understood: Science@NASA, Ananova, SC.
Solar activity on the increase in general since the 1940s: a paper by Usoskin & al., an MPG PM, New Sci. 2000 aurorae from home: Ast.

When and where to watch the two potentially bright comets of 2004

In May of 2004, the comets C/2001 Q4 (NEAT) and C/2002 T7 (LINEAR) could become bright, reaching 1st magnitude, though many in the comet community fear that they - both visiting the inner solar system for the 1st time - could fizzle out and reach not more than 3rd magnitude. Nonetheless the possibility of seeing two naked-eye comets simultaneously in the sky is raising the question: from where is that possible? A detailled analysis by the Cosmic Mirror-master has yielded some basic insights, such as
  • that the phases of the moon are favorable for both comets, i.e. they can be seen at the times of greatest brilliance (May 6 and 17, resp.) in dark skies and - at least at 25° S - well above the horizon;
  • that for observing NEAT alone, 25° N and S are about equally fine, with the Southern locale better immediately around and after peak brightness and the Northern locale better later in the month; but
  • that to see LINEAR properly you have to be at 25° S or even farther South (and even then the elevation near greatest brilliance in dark skies rarely exceeds 20°);
  • that one can »use« the total eclipse of the moon on May 4 to get an extra hour of dark-sky time for NEAT, but this probably only works when you are in Africa; and finally that
  • there is one interval, May 4 to 23, that incorporates the times of greatest brilliance for both comets and even wastes no time: From 25° South NEAT can be seen, often high, in dark skies every evening, and LINEAR can be followed first in the morning and then evening skies around its peak brilliance from May 15 to 22.
Both comets have the potential in principle to become as bright as Hyakutake got in 1996, but even if they stay below that level, say at +3m, they would still match Ikeya-Zhang of 2002 which was a fine sight even under mediocre skies. Having two such (or, of course, brighter) comets in the sky almost simultaneously would be a very rare and probably visually striking event, certainly worthy of a trip to a dark, southern location with a high probability of clear skies ...
The full analysis, with links to tables, graphics and further data.

Hermes is a double asteroid

The space rock lost to science for 66 years and recently rediscovered, is actually a pair of orbiting asteroids, new radar observations suggest: Lowell and Cornell [UCLA] Releases, Science@NASA, Ast., S&T, AFP, Tor. Star, SC, BdW. The recovery, new orbit and observing hints: S&T, MPEC, BdW. How to handle asteroid 'alerts': CCNet, AFP. Welsh pseudo-bolide identified as Concorde contrail: CCNet (item 8, way down).

Evidence mounts for a dry Mars

Lots of olivine on the surface: GSFC, ASU and USGS Press Releases, AstroBio, BBC, Telegraph. No carbonates as well: PSRD. Phobos & Deimos imaged with an 11" telescope: APOD. Why Phoenix makes sense, the first NASA Mars Scout: SC.
"Unusual" spot on Jupiter no sensation, experienced observers say - the SC and BdW stories apparently describe a well-known Jovian phenomenon.

TV channel invests $ 10m in Lowell Obs. 4-meter telescope

A most unusual deal has been struck between the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and Discovery Communications Inc., known best for running the worldwide network of Discovery Channels: They will jointly fund the construction of a unique optical 4-meter telescope. With the $10m donation, additional sponsorships and its own funds, $20m are now in hand for the $30m project, and the detailled design work and manufacturing of key components of the instrument can already go ahead while the remainder of the funding is being sought.

The »Discovery Channel Telescope« (DCT) will have a particularly wide field of view of 2 degrees, which will be watched by 36 CCDs of 2000 x 4000 pixels each: This will permit quick, vast and deep sky surveys, and the Lowell Observatory will use the DCT for a comprehensive cataloging effort of Near Earth Objects. Some 2000 new discoveries each month are expected, plus the detection of numerous Kuiper Belt Objects, perhaps even a »2nd Pluto«. Meanwhile the Discovery Channel will document the progress of construction and work and also plans to use the DCT for »live« TV footage of (so far unspecified) sky events.

The DCT homepage, a Lowell Press Release, Lowell Observer 1, 2, Ast., AZ Republic and AZ Daily Sun via CCNet (item 4).

Progress for a 30-meter telescope

Planning of a »Thirty-Meter Telescope« (TMT, formerly known as the CELT) can now proceed in great detail, thanks to a donation of $ 17.5m - but the actual construction is not funded yet: Caltech Press Release [SR], Ast., BBC.

ISS Update

Expedition 8 is now on the ISS while Exp. 7 and P. Duque have returned to Earth on Oct. 28: a CAIB Release on more volumes of the Columbia report, NASA and ESA Releases on the Exp. 8 launch, a NASA Release on the docking, an ESA Release on the return, an Univ. Ulm PM on experiments, Duque's final Space Diary (earlier entries linked from sidebar), the mission's Status, the Soyuz' rollout and launch galleries, a transcript of an Oct. 24 NASA PC, the California fires as seen from the ISS (and also from Aqua [SD]; New Sci.), a JSC Release on an ISS drill, a letter to O'Keefe regarding the OSP and coverage of Oct. 30: SC, ST. Oct. 29: Dsc., FT, SC 2, 1. Oct. 28: New Sci., BBC, AP, AFP 3, 2, 1, FT 3, 2, 1, WP 2, 1, SR, SC 2, 1, ST 3, 2, 1, RP, NZ. Oct. 27: AFP, FT 3, 2, 1, SR, SC.
Oct. 25: FT, AFP, ST. Oct. 24: WP 2, 1, Scotsman, CNN, Guardian, Rtr, FT, SC, NZ. Oct. 23: FT, WP, New Sci., BBC, Rtr, AFP 3, 2, 1, Rtr, AP, SC, ST. Oct. 22: FT, ABC, Atlantic. Oct. 21: SN, AP, Welt. Oct. 20: SN, BBC 2, 1, FT, AFP 2, 1, AP, Moscow Times, ARRL, ST 2, 1, RP, NZ. Oct. 19: Guardian. Oct. 18: SN, FT 2, 1, WP, BBC, AFP, AP, ST. Early Oct.: IEEE Spectrum.
China after Shenzhou 5: coverage and commentary of Oct. 31: BBC, Xinhua, AFP, AP, Oct. 30: AFP. Oct. 28: AFP 2, 1, AP. Oct. 27: People's Daily, Str. T., Oct. 26: Gulf News, AP. Oct. 25: AFP 2, 1. Oct. 24: JSR, Japan Times, Xinhua, People's Daily, AP, AFP 2, 1, BBC. Oct. 23: People's Daily, Xinhua, ZEIT. Oct. 22: SD, Xinhua, AP, RP. Oct. 21: People's Daily, Monday Morning, AFP. Oct. 20: SpaceRev, TIME, FT, AP, AFP, NZ. Oct. 19: AW&ST, AFP, AP. Oct. 18: VOA, AP, Xinhua, AFP 3, 2, 1, Toronto Star, NZ.

Contact lost with Japanese ADEOS-2 satellite - spacecraft given up

Japan has abandoned a 640-million dollar observation satellite that lost contact with earth six days earlier, possibly due to the recent series of solar flares: JAXA Press Release (earlier), AFP (earlier), SN (earlier), ST (earlier), Japan Times. Earlier: Dsc.

Pierre Auger observatory now largest cosmic-ray experiment in the world

The Pierre Auger observatory under construction in Argentina in mid-October became the largest cosmic-ray air shower array in the world, with 100 surface detectors: FNAL Press Release, Ast.

A star forming region 106 times brighter than M 42

has been discovered at a redshift of 3.36 - the "Lynx Arc" is caused by one million extremely hot stars in action: MPG PM, ESA HST Release [SR], Keck Release, STScI Release, Ast., BBC, Guardian, NZ, RP.

A galaxy devoid of all stars - astronomers have found the first "dark galaxy", a black cloud of hydrogen gas and exotic particles but devoid of stars: New Sci., BdW.

IR flares from Sgr A*

have been observed with the VLT - and quasi-periodic oscillations may offer insights into the parameters of the black hole envisioned in the Galactic Center by many: ESO, Berkeley and MPG Press Releases, Heise, BdW.

Integral discovers hidden black hole candidates, binary systems, probably including a black hole or a neutron star, embedded in a thick cocoon of cold gas: ESA News, Ast.

SMART-1 now one month in orbit

The main activity is to continue the thrust firings of the electric propulsion engine in order to boost the spacecraft orbit - this operation was limited temporarily due to problems with the local radiation environment as a result of the recent, high intensity solar activity: Status (earlier); SC. Rosetta preparations: BBC. MESSENGER to launch in May: SD.

Planetary Society's solar sail won't fly until 2004 as the project has grown in complexity: Statement.

SDSS + WMAP confirm cosmology, again

Cosmological parameters determined from the three-dimensional power spectrum from over 200,000 galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) in combination with WMAP and other data confirm the widely-held views about the Universe from the last 5 years: a paper by Tegmark & al. (another one), SDSS Release, APOD, New Sci.

Early results from the Ultra Deep Field observed with the HST are being examined: AP.

U.S. weather satellite finally escapes grasp of hard luck

Leaving behind three difficult years of delays and disappointments, a seemingly jinxed U.S. military weather satellite finally enjoyed a reversal of fortune on Oct. 18 as it successfully soared into space on the last Titan 2 rocket: SN (earlier, still earlier), SC, ST. Aeolus contract to Astrium: Astrium Rel., BBC, ST.

Sea Launch to offer land-based, medium-lift launches from Baikonur in cooperation with Space International Services: Press Release, AFP, ST.

Earth monitoring satellite launched by China and Brazil

The second half of a joint Sino-Brazilian environmental satellite program streaked into space on Oct. 21, together with China's first microsatellite: SN, AFP, ST. China to invest EUR 200m in Galileo - contract signed: AFP (earlier). India joins it, too: AFP, Times of India, ST.

Brazil's space dreams are in limbo after the August VLS disaster: AP.

Kourou Soyuz launch plans move ahead - on October 7, 2003, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kassianov and French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin finalised an agreement that will see the Russia Soyuz rocket launched from the European spaceport in Kourou: EC Press Release.

More hypersonic experiments planned

in the U.S. - the government took another step toward the development of air-breathing rockets by awarding a $150m contract to a Tennesseecompany that will build and fly the first of three identical hypersonic demonstration vehicles in 2007: SC (earlier), SpaceShipOne completes 4th drop test: ST.

Japanese experimental satellite SERVIS-1 launched on Rockot booster: Press Release, SN, ST (earlier). Earlier: AFP.

Dan Goldin will not become BU president - the former NASA boss resigned on Oct. 31 amid souring relations with the school's trustees and its outgoing chancellor: WP.


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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
(send me a mail to dfischer@astro.uni-bonn.de!), Skyweek