The space shuttle Discovery backlit with lightning near Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL on August 4, 2009.
When the big day of the launch finally arrives, the equipment is thoroughly checked, astronauts have spent months in training, and the flight path has been cleared of traffic. But, there’s one thing the flight crew can’t control- the weather. Ultimately, calm winds and clear skies provide the best flight conditions, but that isn’t always the case, as we saw with the SpaceX Dragon Launch in 2020…
While equipment can range in the millions of dollars range, it is best to err on the side of caution of making it to space safely. However, delays due to weather can require other accommodations for perishable food or live animals on board.
The Air Force 45th Weather Squadron usually provides weather forecasts for launches in the Cape Canaveral area, where most launches occur. NASA has 14 different launch criteria pertaining to weather pertaining to wind, cloud cover, visibility, and the majority because of lightning. Violation of any of these conditions will cause the launch to be rescheduled for another day. Conditions must also be clear down range, in case of an emergency launch abort after liftoff and for a splashdown to occur. See photo below to check out all 14 different weather conditions monitored by flight meteorologists:
Thunderstorms can be the main hazard for rocket launches, particularly at Cape Canaveral, where daily afternoon thunderstorms are common. Rockets on the launch pad are safe from strikes due to lightning rods, but can be susceptible to a hit after they are launched. If a thunderstorm has produced lightning in the past 30 minutes within ten nautical miles of the launch site, it’s a no-go for the flight. A lightning strike almost spelled the end of the Apollo 12 mission in 1969 even before it left the Earth’s atmosphere. Seconds after lift off, the moon-bound rocket was struck by lightning, causing warning lights to go off and the astronauts lose their altitude reference. Luckily, the crew was able to get systems back online and made it to the moon safely. The lightning strike could’ve spelled disaster otherwise. In 1987, the unmanned Atlas/Centaur-67 rocket was launched into rainy, overcast skies, being struck by lightning and sending it “tumbling out of control”. Scientists have learned that exhaust plumes from the rocket can also trigger lightning when passing through a preexisting electric field, such as tall cumulus clouds containing both water and ice.
Any form of precipitation could cause a launch to be scrubbed (snow or any type of frozen precipitation is generally rare along the Florida coast). Even a thick layer of clouds may postpone a launch, especially if the cloud layer is greater than 4500 feet thick and extends into the freezing layer, endangering the rocket’s safety.
Even on a clear day, wind can still cause a launch to be postponed. If winds are light near the launch site, but exceed 30 mph near the 162-ft level of the launch tower, this criteria will be a violation of the launch procedure. High winds can cause possible control problems for the rocket and cause it to veer off course. If wind observations near the launch pad exceed 34 mph (or 30 knots), the launch will be scrubbed. Determining upper-level winds is a little different, as wind shear (change of wind speed with altitude) is analyzed, not necessarily the speed of the wind. Best to wait for winds to die down.
A launch planned for early March 2020 for SpaceX was scrubbed due to high wind shear. SpaceX had planned a launch again on May 27, 2020, but was called off about 17 minutes before liftoff due to the presence of lightning, “lightning energy dissipation”, and an attached thunderstorm anvil (a towering thunderstorm top that can generate an electric field and trigger lightning when in contact with a rocket’s plume) in the vicinity of Kennedy Space Center. The thunderstorms were a result of remnants from Tropical Storm Bertha, which made landfall in South Carolina that morning. Clearing was indicated after the specific launch window. A second launch attempt was made for May 30th, with the forecast calling for lingering cloud cover left in the storm’s wake. The launch was successful.
Even after a successful launch, the weather must cooperate for a landing. Landing a rocket with extreme precision in a small target in the ocean is complicated enough without adding factors such as wind, swells, or rain.
To learn more about rockets and other space weather topics, please click here: https://www.globalweatherclimatecenter.com/space-weather-topics.
©2021 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan
Night in Shining… Clouds? - Noctilucents (Photo Credits: Sharon Sullivan, Spaceweather Gallery, Jessica Voveris)
On an early June morning, several NWS meteorologists ventured outside to see a cloud shimmering above the horizon, like the inside of a pearl. Noctilucent clouds (NLC’s), or “night shining” clouds, are high- altitude clouds that form about 50 miles above the Earth, in contrast to the 12 miles up that cumulus, stratus, cirrus are typically found. They are believed to be made up of tiny ice crystals. This rare sight is typically seen during the summer months between 50 and 60 degrees latitude, but has been documented as far south as Oklahoma and even parts of Arizona before. These features can only be seen during astronomical twilight when the sun is below the observer’s horizon (around the summer solstice) and reflects off the ice crystals, making them glow.
There is not much documentation on these clouds before 1885 (2 years after the eruption of Krakatoa) and there is still mystery surrounding as to how they form. There is very little moisture in the mesosphere layer of the atmosphere to form these clouds otherwise, almost one hundred millionth that of the Sahara. In addition, temperatures can reach nearly -200 degrees Fahrenheit, the less moisture the atmosphere is able to hold. However, meteor entries, rocket launches, and volcanoes may allow thin layers of dust to be deposited, acting as “nuclei” for ice to form. Veils, bands, billows, and whirls are the shapes that they come in.
Noctilucent clouds have been observed more frequently in recent years, and outside of their normal latitudes. It is thought that a changing climate could enhance the observation of these clouds, having more methane to interact with water vapor processes and acting as a guide for the state of the atmosphere for future generations to come. Currently, there is no way to predict their appearance- but keeping your eyes to the sky an hour after sunset or before sunrise may allow you to see one lucky sight.
For more about space weather topics, please click here!
©2019 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan
Noctilucent clouds over Juneau, Alaska on July 3, 2018. Taken by former NWS Juneau meteorologist Jessica Voveris.
(Photo Credit: NASA)
Successful weather forecasting relies on accurate, real-time data obtained through the operation of multiple sensors. These sensors are designed to measure various atmospheric quantities and include weather balloons, doppler radars, satellites, etc. With the frequent development of new technology that allows for the collection of more timely data, satellites have become particularly helpful tools, especially for those interested in the atmospheric and space sciences.
There are two main types of operational satellites: geostationary and polar-orbiting. Geostationary satellites hover over one point on the equator and rotate at the same rate as the Earth. Therefore the satellite is always positioned above the same location, allowing it to accurately monitor one particular geographic region. Since the prefix geo refers to “the Earth” and stationary means to hold a fixed position, this definition makes perfect sense. Polar-orbiting satellites instead circle the globe adjacent to its movement, passing over both the north and south poles. Rather than viewing the same location consistently, these satellites move perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation and eventually create an image for the entire surface. Essentially, polar-orbiting satellites are designed to pass over the same location in space just after the Earth has rotated far enough for a new portion of the surface to be within the satellites view.
(Photo Credit: UCAR: The COMET Program)
While polar-orbiters provide a considerable amount of information crucial to understanding our atmosphere, recent focus has been on understanding the improved capabilities of the newest geostationary satellites, GOES-16 and GOES-17. The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program is a joint effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), both government agencies are dependent in part on information provided by satellite observation. Both GOES-16 and GOES-17 are part of the GOES-R series, the most recent set of satellites charged with monitoring conditions over eastern and western North America respectfully. More detailed information about the GOES-R series can be found by clicking here!
(Photo Credit: NOAA)
This new technology allows for increased efficiency and accuracy regarding the collection of important atmospheric and astronomical data. For example, this new series of satellites can record three times more data (16 bands compared to 5 bands) than previous models. Bands are simply a way of describing the different types of data a satellite can observe and include everything from visible imagery (essentially just a picture of Earth) to a more complicated calculation of water vapor content for example. A more detailed description of how these bands work and what information they tell us about the atmosphere can be found by clicking the link attached here. In addition, these satellites are able to compile data on the order of five times faster than their predecessors and distinguish between closer geographic points on the Earth’s surface than ever before. With these massive technological improvements over the past few years, recent research has been devoted to learning about how these capabilities can be further improved on future instruments and finding new ways this modern information can help scientists predict and understand the weather!
To find more articles on interesting space weather topics, click here!
©2019 Weather Forecaster Dennis Weaver
How is the NASA Mars Insight Rover Transforming Martian Research? (Credit: NASA and NASA JPL)
DISCUSSION: There is no doubt that as the global population continues to increase more and more with time in all four corners of the globe, there is an increasingly larger interest in mankind investigating other planets in terms of both the prospects of the past existence of organic life as well as the prospects of current and/or future organic life. Having said that, one of the biggest recent and ongoing missions for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) is the NASA Insight Mission to Mars in which a state-of-the-art research rover is studying various properties of the “Red Planet.”
More specifically, one of the tools which is functioning on-board this research rover lander happens to be an incredibly highly sensitive seismometer which was designed for picking up internal activity from within the planet’s core. However, a very neat and separate application of this highly sensitive seismometer has been the unique application of using it to recently observe and analyze the progression of air streams (i.e., wind) moving past the rover lander’s recent position. This was detected as a result of the Martian winds blowing past the rover lander’s solar panels and then having the minor movements applied to the rover lander being identified as Martian wind. The recording of this recent Martian wind which was observed is attached in the Tweet which is linked above (courtesy of the NASA Insight and NASA JPL Twitter accounts). This is neat since it just goes to show how there can be minor temperature and pressure gradients across various parts of Mars which could cause occasional breezes (i.e., something akin to what is found on Earth on a calm, sunny day).
This is a neat fact to combine with other upcoming findings from this ongoing NASA Mars Insight mission since this will allow NASA space and atmospheric research scientists to understand more about the current state as well as the past/ancient history of the Martian atmosphere. In addition, this information could also help to dissect as to whether Mars could now and/or in the future be a viable location for harboring life for mankind. There is still a tremendous amount of information which is yet to be garnered from this mission, but the one thing which is almost certain is the reality that there is a plethora of knowledge yet to be gained from this latest in series of past, current, and future research missions destined to study a variety of issues tied to the “Red Planet.”
To learn more about this Mars rover research mission in even greater detail, click here!
To learn more about other interesting space weather topics from the Global Weather and Climate Center, click here!
© 2018 Meteorologist Jordan Rabinowitz
Ring Around the Sun or Moon, Rain Will Come Soon (Photo Credit: Jannette Posis)
An icy sunrise peaks over the Manzano Mountains in Albuquerque, NM on February 21, 2017.
Early last year, many Albuquerqueans were surprised to see a rainbow encircling the sun as it rose over the Manzano Mountains. Many forms of atmospheric optics, such as coronae, sun dogs, glories, and sun halos, are produced when light passes through tiny cloud droplets or ice crystals in upper-level cirrus clouds. Solar coronae (not to be mistaken with the sun’s outer atmosphere but rather an atmospheric optic) may consist of several colorful concentric rings around the celestial body and a bright central circle called the aureole.
When light travels through thin clouds made up of nearly uniform-sized, individual water droplets, aerosols, or even pollen, diffraction or scattering of light may occur by the outer “skins” of the droplets. Since light has different colors of different wavelengths, each color diffracts differently. This scattered light radiates outward from all points on the droplet’s surface, resulting in a circular diffraction pattern.
The angular size of the corona is also dependent upon the diameter of the cloud droplets (between 0.001-0.1 mm), hence smaller droplets result in larger coronae. (This can be properly described by Mie’s theory, in which the intensity of scattered light is proportional to the geometrical cross-section of the particle squared and inversely proportional to the fourth power of its wavelength). Sun halos and rainbows differ from coronae in the sense that they are formed by refraction from larger ice crystals and water droplets, respectively.
Coronae, sun dogs, glories, and sun halos are not an uncommon occurrence, but they aren’t something that you would expect to see every day.
To learn more about space weather and other atmospheric phenomena, please click here!
© 2018 Sharon Sullivan
Curtains of Light in the Night Sky: The Northern Lights (Photo Credit: Sharon Sullivan)
Northern lights lit up the night sky over Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska shortly after 4 am, November 2017.
30,000 years ago, early humans in France illustrated natural lights in the sky through cave paintings. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of animals they hunted. As early as the 1600’s, Galileo Galilei used the name “aurora borealis” to describe the phenomenon, after the mythical Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the wind of the north, Boreas. Particles may escape the sun from sunspot regions on its surface, sending charged particles into space and toward Earth (known as the solar wind). These particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and are funneled toward the poles, where they set off colorful displays of light (aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere or aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere).
Auroras can come in a variety of colors from pink, green, blue, violet, white, and most commonly green. Green lights are produced when particles collide with oxygen and may appear above 150 miles of the surface. They can be seen in arcs, rays, streamers, bands, or rippling curtains. Auroras are even thought to make sounds similar to radio static or hissing during strong displays due to charged particles that rapidly discharge (like static electricity) when they slam into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Magnetometers around the world constantly measure the effect of the solar wind on Earth’s magnetic field and give an indication of auroral activity up to 30 minutes in advance. In order to know your chances of seeing an aurora, the Kp index (from German “Kennziffer Planetarische” or “planetary index number”) gives a range of auroral activity on a scale of 0 to 9 for a 3-hour period. Anything above a Kp5 indicates a geomagnetic storm, which can interfere with GPS signals and even the electrical grid. When geomagnetic activity is low (Kp1-2), auroras are typically located around 66 degrees magnetic latitude and may expand toward the equator as activity increases. To see the Northern Lights in parts of southern Canada and southeastern Alaska, generally a Kp3 level is needed and anything greater than Kp6 for the Boston area to have a chance of seeing this amazing light show. (Winter is usually the best time to see them, due to lower levels of light pollution and the clear, crisp air). The Kp forecast for the rest of this week shows low auroral activity (Kp2-3), with a high chance of auroral activity to kick off the week.
To learn about space weather forecasts, please click here!
© 2018 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan
Northern lights over Juneau, AK, September 2018.
The historic Parker Solar Probe launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida Sunday to embark on a journey to the Sun. The spacecraft will present data and observations which will help us understand the star that makes Earth possible. The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, is named after Solar Physicist Eugene Parker who, in 1958, predicted the existence of a solar wind.
During its first week of operations, the probe will deploy a high-gain antenna and a magnetometer boom which will measure magnetic forces coming from the Sun that can potentially reach Earth. Also, the probe will deploy electric field antennas in two parts. The beginning of these instrument tests are expected to begin in early September, lasting approximately four weeks. The spacecraft is expected to be about 15 million miles from the Sun in November. Here, the probe will be within the solar atmosphere known as the corona. This will be the first object made by humanity to reach this distance. The probe will go further than this distance though, reaching a distance of 3.8 million miles from the surface of the Sun. Here, the probe will begin doing experiments, helping us understand numerous questions we have about the Sun. Why is the corona 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface? What is the cause of solar wind and what drives it? What accelerates solar energetic particles which can reach half the speed of light? We hope to answer these questions with the help of the Parker Solar Probe and its seven-year journey.
In order to reach the Sun, the probe will need an added boost of gravity from our sister planet, Venus. A gravity assist from Venus will occur in early October. This will whip the spacecraft around the planet while using Venus’ gravity. This won’t be the first time the probe comes in contact with Venus. The Parker Solar Probe will make six more Venus flybys after the initial one, along with 24 total passes around the Sun. Once the probe reaches approximately 3.8 million miles from the Sun’s surface, it will be traveling at roughly 430,000 miles per hour—setting the record for the fastest-moving man-made object.
In total, the Parker Solar Probe carries four instruments designed to study magnetic fields, plasma, energetic particles and capture images of solar wind. This probe will help humanity to understand space weather more clearly and possible dangers that can harm Earth. These space weather events can also pose threats to satellites, astronauts in orbit, disrupt radio communication and, at most severity, damage power grids. It is vital to understand space weather as much as it is to understand atmospheric weather on Earth, for both kinds of weather effect our daily lives and can change in an instant.
For updates on the Parker Solar Probe, click here
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©2018 Weather Forecaster Alec Kownacki
On February 12th, sunspot AR2699, which had recently morphed into four individual spots, exploded, producing a C1-class solar flare in addition to hurling a coronal mass ejection almost exactly in the direction of Earth.
The sunspots' rapid change in appearance was a significant clue that its magnetic field was changing, a process that can lead to solar flares when the magnetic field twists, turns, and magnetically reconnects to restore equilibrium.
Coronal mass ejection models at NASA and NOAA currently disagree with the timing for when the solar material will impact Earth; the coronal mass ejection could arrive as early as late on February 14th, but is more likely on February 15th.
The coronal mass ejection may be strengthened by a stream of fast moving solar wind particles that was already en route to Earth when the sunspot exploded; if the CME sweeps up material from the stream, much like a snowplow, it may increase the potency of the solar storm when it strikes Earth's magnetic field.
A G1 (minor) geomagentic storm watch is in effect for February 15th. Arctic sky watchers should be alert for auroras when the CME arrives; if the storm intensifies to class G2, observers in Canada and northern U.S. states may have a chance to see auroras as well.
© 2018 Meteorologist Chris Stubenrauch
DISCUSSION: Although captured in December 2017, NASA has now released images of the farthest photos ever taken from Earth by a spacecraft. The New Horizons LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) captured false-color images of Objects 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85 (right) in the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is a region located beyond the orbit of Neptune with asteroids, comets and other bodies made of mostly ice.
On December 5, 2017, the spacecraft snapped the images just over 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from the Kuiper Belt objects. To put it into perspective, the Earth is located about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from the Sun. The photo surpassed the “Pale Blue Dot” images of Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1. The New Horizons flew past Pluto back in 2015 and is on course to fly by another icy body in the Kuiper Belt at the outer reaches of the solar system in January 2019.
After being launched in 2006, the New Horizons has fully lived up to its expectations. Although currently in electronic hibernation, the spacecraft will be reawakened in June 2018 by flight controllers in a lab in Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland. It will continue to glide during its preparation for its visit with 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper Belt.
Check out this link to read more about this historic event.
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©2018 Meteorologist Nicholas Quaglieri
DISCUSSION: On Tuesday February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched the first Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Falcon Heavy is a modified form of the Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages as boosters to provide more power to the rocket. This enables the Falcon Heavy to be able to carry heavier loads and be able to go to the Moon in future missions. This launch is a test to see what the Falcon Heavy can do outside of tests as well as being a stepping stone in commercial spaceflights to the Moon and beyond. The payload for this first launch is Elon Musk’s, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, personal Tesla roadster which will be in an orbit of the Sun that is similar in size to the planet Mars’ orbit. The rocket will be used to help meteorologists in the future as it is projected to take several satellites including the Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 which will study optical effects in the upper atmosphere in June of 2018.
Conditions for the launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida were good at the time of the launch window at 1830Z (1:30 pm EST) and remained the same through the launch which occurred at 2045Z (3:45 pm EST). In addition, the Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE), which is the maximum buoyancy of a parcel relative to the strength of upward motion, was very minimal and not able to be enough to generate any thunderstorms near the rocket launch. However, some clouds at about 2300 ft were observed but were not a major factor. Clouds generally are a concern due to historical lightning strikes involving rocket launches even when there are non-convective clouds aloft. An example of this is Apollo 12 back in 1969, when lightning struck the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo spacecraft a minute into the flight despite there being no convective clouds at the time. There was a southeasterly wind between 5 and 10 knots near the surface with westerly winds aloft which helped the Falcon Heavy pitch to its desired angle of attack as it streaked through the atmosphere and into orbit. Weather conditions remained the same as the two boosters of the Falcon Heavy safely landed back at Cape Canaveral a few minutes after launch.
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©2018 Meteorologist JP Kalb