Researchers Uncover Additional Evidence For Massive Solar Storms

Our planet is constantly being bombarded by cosmic particles. However, at times the stream of particles is particularly strong when a solar storm sweeps past. Solar storms are made up of high-energy particles unleashed from the sun by explosions on the star’s surface.

For the past 70 years, researchers have studied these solar storms by direct instrumental observations, which has led to an understanding of how they can pose a risk to the electrical grid, various communication systems, satellites and air traffic. Two examples of severe solar storms in modern times that caused extensive power cuts took place in Quebec, Canada (1989) and Malmö, Sweden (2003).

Now, an increasing amount of research indicates that solar storms can be even more powerful than measurements have shown so far via direct observations.

The researchers behind the new, international study led by researchers from Lund University have used drilled samples of ice, or ice cores, to find clues about previous solar storms. The cores come from Greenland and contain ice formed over the past about 100,000 years. The material contains evidence of a very powerful solar storm that occurred in 660 BCE.

“If that solar storm had occurred today, it could have had severe effects on our high-tech society,” says Raimund Muscheler, professor of geology at Lund University.

The new study means that a third known case of a massive solar storm dating back in time has been discovered via indirect observations in nature’s own archive. Raimund Muscheler also took part in research that confirmed the existence of two other massive solar storms, using both ice cores and the annual growth rings of old trees. These storms took place in 775 and 994 CE.

Raimund Muscheler points out that, even though these massive solar storms are rare, the new discovery shows that they are a naturally recurring effect of solar activity.

“That’s why we must increase society’s protection again solar storms,” he says.

Today’s risk assessment is largely based on direct observations made over the past 70 years, but Raimund Muscheler suggests that there is a need for a reassessment in view of the three massive solar storms that have now been discovered. He argues that there is a need for greater awareness of the possibility of very strong solar storms and the vulnerability of our society.

“Our research suggests that the risks are currently underestimated. We need to be better prepared,” concludes Raimund Muscheler.

LAMP Instrument Sheds Light On Lunar Water Movement

Using the Southwest Research Institute-led Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), scientists have observed water molecules moving around the dayside of the Moon. A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters describes how LAMP measurements of the sparse layer of molecules temporarily stuck to the surface helped characterize lunar hydration changes over the course of a day.

Up until the last decade or so, scientists thought the Moon was arid, with any water existing mainly as pockets of ice in permanently shaded craters near the poles. More recently, scientists have identified surface water in sparse populations of molecules bound to the lunar soil, or regolith. The amount and locations vary based on the time of day. This water is more common at higher latitudes and tends to hop around as the surface heats up.

“This is an important new result about lunar water, a hot topic as our nation’s space program returns to a focus on lunar exploration,” said SwRI’s Dr. Kurt Retherford, the principal investigator of the LRO LAMP instrument. “We recently converted the LAMP’s light collection mode to measure reflected signals on the lunar dayside with more precision, allowing us to track more accurately where the water is and how much is present.”

Water molecules remain tightly bound to the regolith until surface temperatures peak near lunar noon. Then, molecules thermally desorb and can bounce to a nearby location that is cold enough for the molecule to stick or populate the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere, or “exosphere,” until temperatures drop and the molecules return to the surface. SwRI’s Dr. Michael Poston, now a research scientist on the LAMP team, had previously conducted extensive experiments with water and lunar samples collected by the Apollo missions. This research revealed the amount of energy needed to remove water molecules from lunar materials, helping scientists understand how water is bound to surface materials.

“Lunar hydration is tricky to measure from orbit, due to the complex way that light reflects off of the lunar surface,” Poston said. “Previous research reported quantities of hopping water molecules that were too large to explain with known physical processes. I’m excited about these latest results because the amount of water interpreted here is consistent with what lab measurements indicate is possible. More work is needed to fully account for the complexities of the lunar surface, but the present results show that work is definitely worth doing!”

Scientists have hypothesized that hydrogen ions in the solar wind may be the source of most of the Moon’s surface water. With that in mind, when the Moon passes behind the Earth and is shielded from the solar wind, the “water spigot” should essentially turn off. However, the water observed by LAMP does not decrease when the Moon is shielded by the Earth and the region influenced by its magnetic field, suggesting water builds up over time, rather than “raining” down directly from the solar wind.

“These results aid in understanding the lunar water cycle and will ultimately help us learn about accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future missions to the Moon,” said Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and lead author of the paper. “A source of water on the Moon could help make future crewed missions more sustainable and affordable. Lunar water can potentially be used by humans to make fuel or to use for radiation shielding or thermal management; if these materials do not need to be launched from Earth, that makes these future missions more affordable.”

The funding for this research came from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s LRO program office, including an LRO LAMP subcontract between SwRI and PSI, and the team received additional support from a NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) cooperative agreement.

What Does The Milky Way Weigh? Hubble And Gaia Investigate

We can’t put the whole Milky Way on a scale, but astronomers have been able to come up with one of the most accurate measurements yet of our galaxy’s mass, using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite.

The Milky Way weighs in at about 1.5 trillion solar masses (one solar mass is the mass of our Sun), according to the latest measurements. Only a few percent of this is contributed by the approximately 200 billion stars in the Milky Way and includes a 4-million-solar-mass supermassive black hole at the center. Most of the rest of the mass is locked up in dark matter, an invisible and mysterious substance that acts like scaffolding throughout the universe and keeps the stars in their galaxies.

Earlier research dating back several decades used a variety of observational techniques that provided estimates for our galaxy’s mass ranging between 500 billion to 3 trillion solar masses. The improved measurement is near the middle of this range.

“We want to know the mass of the Milky Way more accurately so that we can put it into a cosmological context and compare it to simulations of galaxies in the evolving universe,” said Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. “Not knowing the precise mass of the Milky Way presents a problem for a lot of cosmological questions.”

The new mass estimate puts our galaxy on the beefier side, compared to other galaxies in the universe. The lightest galaxies are around a billion solar masses, while the heaviest are 30 trillion, or 30,000 times more massive. The Milky Way’s mass of 1.5 trillion solar masses is fairly normal for a galaxy of its brightness.

Astronomers used Hubble and Gaia to measure the three-dimensional movement of globular star clusters — isolated spherical islands each containing hundreds of thousands of stars each that orbit the center of our galaxy.

Although we cannot see it, dark matter is the dominant form of matter in the universe, and it can be weighed through its influence on visible objects like the globular clusters. The more massive a galaxy, the faster its globular clusters move under the pull of gravity. Most previous measurements have been along the line of sight to globular clusters, so astronomers know the speed at which a globular cluster is approaching or receding from Earth. However, Hubble and Gaia record the sideways motion of the globular clusters, from which a more reliable speed (and therefore gravitational acceleration) can be calculated.

The Hubble and Gaia observations are complementary. Gaia was exclusively designed to create a precise three-dimensional map of astronomical objects throughout the Milky Way and track their motions. It made exacting all-sky measurements that include many globular clusters. Hubble has a smaller field of view, but it can measure fainter stars and therefore reach more distant clusters. The new study augmented Gaia measurements for 34 globular clusters out to 65,000 light-years, with Hubble measurements of 12 clusters out to 130,000 light-years that were obtained from images taken over a 10-year period.

When the Gaia and Hubble measurements are combined as anchor points, like pins on a map, astronomers can estimate the distribution of the Milky Way’s mass out to nearly 1 million light-years from Earth.

“We know from cosmological simulations what the distribution of mass in the galaxies should look like, so we can calculate how accurate this extrapolation is for the Milky Way,” said Laura Watkins of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, lead author of the combined Hubble and Gaia study, to be published in The Astrophysical Journal. These calculations based on the precise measurements of globular cluster motion from Gaia and Hubble enabled the researchers to pin down the mass of the entire Milky Way.

The earliest homesteaders of the Milky Way, globular clusters contain the oldest known stars, dating back to a few hundred million years after the big bang, the event that created the universe. They formed prior to the construction of the Milky Way’s spiral disk, where our Sun and solar system reside.

“Because of their great distances, globular star clusters are some of the best tracers astronomers have to measure the mass of the vast envelope of dark matter surrounding our galaxy far beyond the spiral disk of stars,” said Tony Sohn of STScI, who led the Hubble measurements.

The international team of astronomers in this study are Laura Watkins (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany), Roeland van der Marel (Space Telescope Science Institute, and Johns Hopkins University Center for Astrophysical Sciences, Baltimore, Maryland), Sangmo Tony Sohn (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland), and N. Wyn Evans (University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom).

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

New Surprises From Jupiter And Saturn

The latest data sent back by the Juno and Cassini spacecraft from giant gas planets Jupiter and Saturn have challenged a lot of current theories about how planets in our solar system form and behave.

The detailed magnetic and gravity data have been “invaluable but also confounding,” said David Stevenson from Caltech, who will present an update of both missions this week at the 2019 American Physical Society March Meeting in Boston.

“Although there are puzzles yet to be explained, this is already clarifying some of our ideas about how planets form, how they make magnetic fields and how the winds blow,” Stevenson said.

Cassini orbited Saturn for 13 years before its dramatic final dive into the planet’s interior in 2017, while Juno has been orbiting Jupiter for two and a half years.

Juno’s success as a mission to Jupiter is a tribute to innovative design. Its instruments are powered by solar energy alone and protected so as to withstand the fierce radiation environment.

Stevenson says the inclusion of a microwave sensor on Juno was a good decision.

“Using microwaves to figure out the deep atmosphere was the right, but unconventional, choice,” he said. The microwave data have surprised the scientists, in particular by showing that the atmosphere is evenly mixed, something conventional theories did not predict.

“Any explanation for this has to be unorthodox,” Stevenson said.

Researchers are exploring weather events concentrating significant amounts of ice, liquids and gas in different parts of the atmosphere as possible explanations, but the matter is far from sealed.

Other instruments on board Juno, gravity and magnetic sensors, have also sent back perplexing data. The magnetic field has spots (regions of anomalously high or low magnetic field) and also a striking difference between the northern and southern hemispheres.

“It’s unlike anything we have seen before,” Stevenson said.

The gravity data have confirmed that in the midst of Jupiter, which is at least 90 percent hydrogen and helium by mass, there are heavier elements amounting to more than 10 times the mass of Earth. However, they are not concentrated in a core but are mixed in with the hydrogen above, most of which is in the form of a metallic liquid.

The data has provided rich information about the outer parts of both Jupiter and Saturn. The abundance of heavier elements in these regions is still uncertain, but the outer layers play a larger-than-expected role in the generation of the two planets’ magnetic fields. Experiments mimicking the gas planets’ pressures and temperatures are now needed to help the scientists understand the processes that are going on.

For Stevenson, who has studied gas giants for 40 years, the puzzles are the hallmark of a good mission.

“A successful mission is one that surprises us. Science would be boring if it merely confirmed what we previously thought,” he said.

UPDATE : Searches To Resume After Tornado Kills 23 In Alabama

BEAUREGARD, Ala. –  Rescuers prepared Monday to tear through the rubble of mobile homes and houses in search of survivors of a powerful tornado that rampaged through southeast Alabama and killed at least 23 people.

The trail of destruction was at least half a mile wide and overwhelmed rural Lee County’s coroners’ office, forcing it to call in help from the state.

“The devastation is incredible,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said.

Drones flying overheard equipped with heat-seeking devices had scanned the area for survivors, but the dangerous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Sheriff Jones said. Rescuers planned to resume the search at daylight Monday.

The Sunday tornado, which had winds that appeared to be around 160 mph (257 kph) or greater, was part of a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

Levi Baker, who lives near the hard-hit area in Alabama, took a chain saw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first-responder vehicles. He said he saw bodies of dead people and dead animals.

He said some houses were demolished and trees were uprooted or snapped in half. One house was swept off its foundation and was sitting in the middle of the road.

“It was just destruction,” Baker said. “There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road.”

Jones said the twister traveled straight down a county road in the rural community of Beauregard reducing homes to slabs.

Scott Fillmer was at home when the storm hit in Lee County.

“I looked out the window and it was nothing but black, but you could hear that freight train noise,” Fillmer said.

The National Weather Service confirmed late Sunday a tornado with at least an F3 rating caused the destruction in Alabama. Although the statement did not give exact wind estimates, F3 storms typically are gauged at wind speeds of between 158-206 mph (254-331 kph).

After nightfall Sunday, the rain had stopped and pieces of metal debris and tree branches littered roadways in Beauregard. Two sheriff’s vehicles blocked reporters and others from reaching the worst-hit area. Power appeared to be out in many places.

In a tweet late Sunday, President Donald Trump said: “To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe. Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”

Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders had quickly jumped in to help search the debris after the storm struck in Beauregard. At least one trained canine could be seen with search crews as numerous ambulances and emergency vehicles, lights flashing, converged on the area.

At the R&D Grocery on Monday morning in Beauregard, residents were constantly asking each other if they were okay.

“I’m still thanking God I’m among the living,” said John Jones, who has lived in Beauregard for most of his life.

No deaths had been reported Sunday evening from storm-damaged Alabama counties other than Lee County, said Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But he said crews were still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state.

Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon as the storm system raced across the region. Weather officials said they confirmed other tornadoes around the region by radar alone and would send teams out Monday to assess those and other storms.

In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Atlanta, a handful of people were injured by either powerful straight-line winds or a tornado that destroyed several mobile homes and damaged other buildings, said Leigh Ann Erenheim, director of the Talbot County Emergency Management Agency.

News footage showed smashed buildings with rooftops blown away, cars overturned and debris everywhere. Trees all around had been snapped bare of branches.

“The last check I had was between six and eight injuries,” Erenheim said in a phone interview. “From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken.”

She said searches of damaged homes and structures had turned up no serious injuries or deaths there.

Henry Wilson of the Peach County Emergency Management Agency near Macon in central Georgia said a barn had been destroyed and trees and power poles had been snapped, leaving many in the area without power.

Authorities in southwest Georgia were searching door-to-door in darkened neighborhoods after a possible tornado touched down in the rural city of Cairo, about 33 miles (53 kilometers) north of Tallahassee, Florida, on Sunday evening. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. A portion of Interstate 10 on the Panhandle was blocked in one direction for a time in Walton County in the aftermath, said Don Harrigan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.

Tornadoes Kill at Least 23 in Alabama, Official Says

The first tornado warning in central Alabama went out around 1 p.m. Sunday. In the hours that followed, a cluster of storms ripped through the Southeast, spawning multiple tornadoes, killing at least 23 and leaving a trail of rubble.

As the storms pushed east, the tornadoes would leave a path of destruction that stretched from Alabama into Florida and Georgia. The reported deaths were all in Lee County, Ala., where two tornadoes — one at least a half-mile wide — wrecked homes and uprooted trees. It was unclear Sunday night whether the deaths had occurred in various locations or all in one place. Dozens of people were sent to hospitals.

As darkness came, rescue workers searched for survivors, and more victims, often with little more than a flashlight or the lights of their vehicles to aid them. More than 150 people were part of the search-and-rescue operations near the Lee County communities of Smiths Station and Beauregard, which is about 60 miles east of Montgomery, said Rita Smith, a spokeswoman for the county’s emergency management agency.

Sheriff Jay Jones of Lee County told reporters that 23 people had been killed. The East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Ala., had received more than 60 patients as of Sunday night, said John Atkinson, a spokesman for the center. He said the conditions of the patients varied.

In Georgia, Booker T. Gainor, the mayor of Cairo, told The Tallahassee Democrat that a tornado had hit just south of downtown, damaging dozens of homes and businesses.

“We have a lot of trees down, debris and power lines,” he told The Democrat. “We have trees completely through houses. You would think a hurricane came after this, the way it looks.”

President Trump said in a tweet on Sunday night that people in and around Alabama should “be careful and safe.”

“Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming,” he said. “To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”

Alex Miller, 27, was driving with two passengers from Savannah, Ga., to his home in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday evening when they were alerted on their cellphones that tornadoes might be incoming. They stopped at a gas station in Columbus, Ga., to let one wave of the storm pass, and continued to head north, hoping to break through the worst of the weather during the lull.

As they neared Smiths Station, Ala., they passed a gas station with a billboard toppled over. They then passed a police blockade diverting southbound traffic off the main roads. The skies darkened, the rain grew stronger — “all the ominous signs,” Mr. Miller said.

“The plan quickly pivoted from ‘We need to drive north’ to ‘We need to pull over and seek shelter immediately,’” he said.

Mr. Miller pulled into a gas station in Smiths Station and sheltered in a hallway in the back with about 10 other people, including children, and a dog. The power was out inside and the light outside continued to dim. It was “post-sunset dark,” Mr. Miller said. The wind whipped outside, in what appeared to be one of the tornadoes to hit the Lee County area.

“The energy was pretty tense,” he said.

After the worst weather abated, Mr. Miller said, he got into the car and drove north, past debris strewn around the roads. Within 15 minutes, he saw sunshine.

David McBride, the owner of Buck Wild Saloon in Smiths Station, told The Ledger-Enquirer that he had ridden out the tornado inside his truck as it was pelted with debris, watching as the winds tore his saloon apart.

“We can replace all this, can get a new truck, we can get a building down the road,” he said. “Thank you, Jesus, I’m still here.”

Chief Byron Prather of the Opelika Fire Department told the television station WSFA 12 that several mobile homes and houses had been destroyed in Lee County.

“There’s debris laying everywhere,” he said. “There was a mobile home frame in the middle of the road at one time. There’s personal belongings in the trees. There’s insulation, there’s building material in the trees.”

Meredith Wyatt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., said the office had issued its first of at least six tornado warnings of the day for Lowndes and Montgomery Counties. The warnings were based on winds, radar patterns of flying debris, and live feeds from storm chasers on the ground.

“And it went full swing after that,” she said.

Between three and five tornadoes probably touched down in central southeastern Alabama, she said. The Weather Service confirmed that a tornado at least a half-mile wide with 136 to 165 m.p.h. winds — or an EF-3 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale — had touched down in the southern part of Lee County.

The service will send teams on Monday to survey the damage to determine the path of the tornadoes, their intensity and how long they stayed on the ground.

Nearly eight years after a tornado outbreak that devastated major cities and small towns alike, Alabama remains wary of severe weather and the menace of tornadoes.

After the 2011 outbreak, which spawned more than 60 tornadoes in Alabama and led to more than 230 fatalities in the state, some communities ordered upgrades to storm shelters, and residents became extraordinarily sensitive about even the threat of poor weather.

Sunday’s weather was a “fairly classic” pattern for March, where colder air mixes with warmer air, said James Spann, the chief meteorologist for WBMA television, the local ABC affiliate. Tornadoes are common this time of year in “Dixie alley,” the nickname given to the Southern states vulnerable to severe weather, he said.

“This is clearly the biggest loss of life we’ve had in my state in a while,” he said. “In fact, we had more deaths in Lee County, Ala., today than the entire United States last year.”

In 2018, 10 people were killed by tornadoes in the United States.

“It’s been very quiet,” Mr. Spann said. “We knew it’s been too quiet for too long.”

At Least 14 Dead After Tornado Strikes Lee County, Alabama

EE COUNTY, Al. – At least 14 people have died as a result of a tornado that struck Lee County Alabama, WRBL News in Columbus, GA reports.

Lee County sits along the Alabama-Georgia border. Many homes have been destroyed and multiple injuries have been reported.

At least a dozen tornadoes touched down in Alabama and Georgia on Sunday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service, CNN reported.

“We have a pretty significant area of damage,” Sheriff Jay Jones told CNN. He estimated a path of destruction about half a mile wide stretched several miles to the east from where the tornado touched down.

The first tornado watches were issued around noon, but were expected to remain in place for parts of Georgia and South Carolina through 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN Meteorologist Gene Norman said.