Dec. 2 is the 25th anniversary of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint project from NASA and the European Space Agency. To celebrate, the agencies released a dramatic, nearly 50-minute-long video showing the sun blasting out solar material from 1998 through 2020.
The SOHO spacecraft constantly stares at the sun, recording its every whim. It’s spectacular and mesmerizing.
“What becomes clear as the sun turns and years pass and background stars whirl by, is how constant the stream of material is that is blasted in all directions — the solar wind,” ESA said in a statement on Wednesday. “This constant wind is interrupted only by huge explosions that fling bows of material at vast speeds, filling the solar system with ionized material and solar radiation.”
SOHO sports special telescopes (coronagraphs) that block out the face of the sun and capture views of coronal mass ejections. CMEs are wild outbursts of solar particles that can impact spacecraft, astronauts and even disrupt power grids on Earth.
A tiny mystery object is zipping past the Earth today, providing astronomers with an excellent opportunity to finally confirm it as being the upper stage of a Centaur rocket that was launched by NASA in 1966.
Is it or isn’t it? This is the question that astronomers have been asking since September, when scientists with the Pan-STARRS1 survey in Maui, Hawai’i, first spotted the object, named 2020 SO. Astronomers have good reason to believe it’s returning space junk, specifically a Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster dating back to the 1960s. Trouble is, they haven’t actually been able to prove it.
2020 SO normally orbits the Sun, but Earth’s gravity has, albeit temporarily, turned this object into an artificial minimoon. The object will complete a pair of orbits around our planet before it adopts a new orbit around the Sun, but today (December 1, 2020) is a special day, as the object is making its closest approach to Earth.
Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0—a group that uses remotely controlled telescopes to observe space—took the opportunity to capture a photo of the object last night.
“I managed to get a tracked image of the object, but also a trail [upper left in the photo] and the latter shows a dotted pattern, basically a bright dot, followed by a fainter one and so on,” Masi explained in an email. “This suggests the object was rotating, with a period of about 10 seconds.”
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Masi said he’ll have more to share soon, so we’re looking forward to that.
Looking at the image, we still can’t be sure that we’re gazing upon the lost rocket booster, but we so want to believe that it is. The purpose of NASA’s Surveyor 2 mission was to examine the lunar surface prior to the Apollo missions. Launched on September 20, 1966, the mission started well, but on the second day, a thruster on Surveyor 2 failed to ignite, throwing the spacecraft into a spin. Surveyor 2 crashed onto the lunar surface, while the Centaur upper stage drifted past the Moon and into an unknown orbit around the Sun.
After that, no one gave it much thought.
NASA’s Surveyor program was actually quite successful, despite two failures out of seven attempts to perform soft landings on the lunar surface between 1966 and 1968. You can learn more about these missions here.
Soon after 2020 SO was spotted by PanSTARRs, astronomers at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flagged the object on account of its unexpected behavior. The object’s orbit was more Earth-like than asteroid-like, featuring a nearly circular orbit within Earth’s orbital plane. That’s not typically seen in asteroids.
The picture was taken by Austro-Hungarian astronomer Ladislaus Weinek. He captured the trail of the meteor on a photographic plate in the Czech Republic.
The meteor he captured was part of the Andromedid meteor shower. The Andromedids were associated with Biela’s Comet, which broke apart in the 1850s.
When Weinek observed the meteor shower in 1885, it was in the middle of a meteor storm. This means that there were way more meteors than usual. Skywatchers could see thousands of meteors per hour.
What used to be a spectacular annual meteor shower is now hardly even visible. Instead of photographic plates or digital cameras, astronomers now have to use special tracking equipment to record images of Andromedid meteors.
Catch up on our entire “On This Day In Space” series on YouTube with this playlist.
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Email Hanneke Weitering at [email protected] or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft discovered that Jupiter’s atmosphere produces lightning-like electrical outbursts called transient luminous events.
On Earth, these colorful lights occur during thunderstorms, when lightning strikes produce red tendrils called “sprites” or glowing disks called “elves” high above the clouds.
Scientists predicted that Jupiter would have sprites and elves too, since it has lightning — but nobody had captured these alien flashes of light until now.
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NASA’s Juno spacecraft just captured images of colorful bursts of lightning-like electricity high in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
These phenomena — jellyfish-shaped “sprites” and glowing disks called “elves” — also occur high up in Earth’s atmosphere during thunderstorms. They were first documented in 1989. Scientists predicted that other planets that have lightning, like Jupiter, would also produce these transient luminous events.
But nobody had ever seen alien sprites or elves until now.
Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 and collecting images of its aurorae in ultraviolet light. A team of researchers processing those snapshots recently noticed something odd.
“In the process of putting together those images, we noticed that very occasionally we saw these surprising, short-lived, bright flashes,” Rohini Giles, a researcher on the Juno team, said in a press conference on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.
“We then went and searched through all of the data that we’ve taken over four years of the mission, and we found a total of 11 flashes, all with very similar properties,” she added.
Each of these outbursts lasted just a few milliseconds.
Giles’ team on Tuesday published a new study on these flashes in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
On Earth, sprites appear as long, red tendrils, sometimes trailing down from a diffuse halo. They happen when a lightning strike produces a high-altitude “quasi-electrostatic field,” Giles said.
In other cases, lightning strikes send electromagnetic pulses upward. The pulses produce glowing disks: elves.
“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” Giles said. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”
Juno can’t confirm that these events were triggered by lightning strikes, since the probe’s lightning-detecting instrument is on the other side of the spacecraft from its UV-imaging instrument. Images from the two instruments are taken at least 10 seconds apart, a delay that’s too long to capture the same flash of light.
But everything else points to these 11 outbursts being transient