Strange Skies


Lost photos suggest Mars' mysterious moon Phobos may be a trapped comet in disguise

Previously unpublished photos of Mars' moon Phobos hint that the mysterious satellite may actually be a trapped comet — or perhaps just a piece of one, along with its twin moon Deimos.
Phobos and Deimos
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/Univ. of ArizonaA composite photo of Mars with its twin moons Phobos and Deimos. New research suggests the pair may in fact be two halves of an ancient comet captured by Mars long ago.
Mars' moon Phobos may actually be a comet — or at least part of one — that was gravitationally captured by the Red Planet long ago, a new preprint study based on previously unpublished photos suggests.

For years, researchers have puzzled over the origins of Phobos and its twin, Deimos. Some have theorized that the moons are former asteroids lured in by Mars' gravity, because their chemical composition is similar to that of certain rocks in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, computer models simulating this capture process have not been able to replicate the pair's near-circular paths around Mars.

Another hypothesis suggests that a giant impact, like that which created our moon, gouged the duo out of the Red Planet; but Phobos has a different chemical composition from Mars, making this scenario unlikely, too.

Figuring out exactly how Phobos was born is one of the aims of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, slated to launch in 2026. Sonia Fornasier, an astronomy professor at the Paris Cité University and lead author of the new study, is an instrument scientist for the MMX mission. While she and other scientists were analyzing images to fine-tune the spacecraft's planned path, Fornasier stumbled upon unpublished photos.


Something strange is happening with Earth's magnetic field tail

It's called the magnetotail, of course.

© Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center-Conceptual Image Lab
You may not know this, but Earth's magnetic field has a tail. As the sun's solar wind buffets the planet, it leaves behind a sort of long shadow that trails out in our planet's wake. Scientists call this magnetic tail, appropriately, the magnetotail. Typically, the magnetotail is strewn with magnetic storms.

But for the past several years, scientists have known of a mystery in the magnetotail: a missing storm. They have found a signature of a storm, but no storm to actually go along with it. NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is now on the case.

MMS consists of four satellites that all launched on the same Atlas V rocket in 2015. Since then, the quartet has been studying Earth's magnetopause: the frontier of the region dominated by the planet's magnetic field. The magnetopause is constantly aflame with magnetic reconnections, which refer to when the lines that make up a magnetic field come together, break apart, then rejoin, creating brilliant flurries of heat and kinetic energy. (These reconnections, if they happen in Earth's atmosphere, can cause auroras.)

Solar Flares

Yucatan Peninsula gets rare glimpse of Northern Lights during largest solar storm in decades

northern lights
Residents in the state of Campeche also captured a rare glimpse of the northern lights
Northern lights were seen across part of the Yucatan Peninsula Friday night as the result of a solar storm. The rare display of pinks and purples dazzled the sky for viewers in northern areas of Yucatan and Quintana Roo.

The solar flares, which have been referred to as the biggest geomagnetic storm in two decades by the Space Weather Prediction Center of the NOAA, were seen across many parts of Latin America, including many areas of Mexico.

According to Protección Civil Baja California (Baja California Civil Protection), the northern lights were expected to be viewable along the northern horizon on the night of May 10 and into the early morning of May 11.


Spectacular southern lights seen across Australia after 'extreme' solar storm

Sean O'Riordan just managed to capture this stunning display at Eaglehawk Neck in south-east Tasmania
© Seán O RiordanSean O'Riordan just managed to capture this stunning display at Eaglehawk Neck in south-east Tasmania.
Aurora australis has lit up skies across southern Australia after an "extreme" geomagnetic solar storm.

Social media users in posted pictures of brightly coloured skies in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and across the Tasman in New Zealand.

However, much of New South Wales missed out on the spectacle due to heavy cloud and rain.

The Bureau of Meteorology has warned the storm that creates the beautiful auroras could also threaten infrastructure and essential services, including power supply.

Comment: Related: "Severe Geomagnetic Storm" hits Earth, NOAA warning in effect all weekend


Northern lights captured in timelapse footage across Europe and US

The lights shone all over the UK on Friday night, seen here in Loose, Kent
The lights shone all over the UK on Friday night, seen here in Loose, Kent
Videos filmed across the northern hemisphere show skies illuminated by the aurora borealis.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US said the 'very rare event' was caused by a large sunspot cluster that has produced several moderate to strong solar flares since Wednesday morning. That meant the lights could be seen further south than usual.

Comment: Related: "Severe Geomagnetic Storm" hits Earth, NOAA warning in effect all weekend


Rare quadruple 'super-sympathetic' solar flare event captured by NASA

quarduple solar flare
© NASA/SDO/AIA SHARESimilar activity will likely increase as the sun nears its 'solar maximum.'.
Earlier this week, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) recorded a rarely seen event — four nearly-simultaneous flare eruptions involving three separate sunspots, as well as the magnetic filament between them. But as impressive as it is, the event could soon pose problems for some satellites and spacecraft orbiting Earth, as well as electronic systems here on the ground.

Comment: More so considering how, with Earth's weakening magnetic field, even relatively moderate solar flares have been shown to disrupt groundbased instruments: (2023) Powerful Solar storm has unusually strong impact on Earth, delays SpaceX rocket launch, stalls oil rigs in Canada

It may seem like a massive ball of fiery, thermonuclear chaos, but there's actually a fairly predictable rhythm to the sun.
Similar to Earth's seasonal changes, the yellow dwarf star's powerful electromagnetic fluctuations follow a roughly 11-year cycle of ebbs and flows.

Although astronomers still aren't quite sure why this happens, it's certainly observable — and recent activity definitely indicates the sun is heading towards its next "solar maximum" later this year.

Comment: See also: Also check out SOTT radio's:


Greece: Orange Sahara dust haze descends over Athens

An orange veil descended over the Greek capital on Tuesday, cloaking the Acropolis and parliament in dust
© APAn orange veil descended over the Greek capital on Tuesday, cloaking the Acropolis and parliament in dust
A dramatic orange haze has descended over Athens as clouds of dust have blown in from the Sahara desert.

It is one of the worst such episodes to hit Greece since 2018, according to officials.

Greece had already been struck by similar clouds in late March and early April, which also covered areas of Switzerland and southern France.

The skies are predicted to clear on Wednesday, says Greece's weather service.

Air quality has deteriorated in many areas of the country and on Wednesday morning the Acropolis in Athens was no longer visible because of the dust. The cloud has reached as far north as Thessaloniki.


Airbursts: An underappreciated hazard

A paper published in March of 2021 in the journal Science Advances reports on the discovery of evidence for a large airburst type impact within the SØr Rondane Mountains, Queen Maud Land, East Antarctica. The report bears the names of a 15-member international team that did the research. The lead author was M. Van Ginneken with the Belgian Geological Survey. In the first sentence of the abstract to the article the authors support something I have been saying for literally decades: "Large airbursts, the most frequent hazardous impact events, are estimated to occur orders of magnitude more frequently than crater-forming impacts."

This fact is confirmed simply because airbursts don't leave impact craters. In this case the fingerprints of the event took the form of condensation spherules resulting from "a touchdown event, in which a projectile vapor jet interacts with the Antarctic ice sheet." The authors go on to explain that "Finding evidence of these low-altitude meteoritic events thus remains critical to understanding the impact history of Earth and estimating hazardous effects of asteroid impacts." They further report that "In recent years, meteoritic ablation debris resulting from airburst events have been found in three different locations of Antarctica. The material . . . all appears to have been produced during a Tunguska-like airburst event 480 thousand years (ka) ago."

With respect to their research, they say: "Here, we present the discovery of extraterrestrial particles formed during a significantly larger event recovered on . . . Queen Maud Land, East Antarctica. The characteristic features of the recovered particles attest to an unusual type of touchdown event, intermediate between an airburst and a crater-forming impact, during which the high-velocity vapor jet produced by the total disruption of an asteroid reached the Antarctic ice sheet." This event was estimated by the team to have occurred about 430 thousand years ago.

The authors provide some critical perspective on the effects of these type of impacts:

"The impact hazards resulting form the atmospheric entry of an asteroid that are currently being addressed by impact mitigation programs depend mainly on whether the impactor reaches the ground or is entirely disrupted in the atmosphere (i.e., airburst). For small-to medium-sized impactors (50- to 150-m diameter) producing airbursts, the main hazard is limited to blast effects resulting in strong overpressures over areas of up to 100,000 km2 wide. [38,600 sq miles] Thermal radiation may also result in fires over an area of 10 to 1000 km2 wide. . . . in addition to shockwaves and thermal radiation covering the aforementioned areas, these events are potentially destructive over a large area, corresponding to the area of interaction between the hot jet and the ground. The authors point out that such an event over Antarctica would inject ice crystals and impact dust into the upper atmosphere but would not directly affect human activity. However, they explain that "if a touchdown impact event takes place above a densely populated area, this would result in millions of casualties and severe damages over distances of up to hundreds of kilometers."

Now comes a new report in Earth and Planetary Science Letters on the discovery of evidence for yet another airburst event over Antarctica. The 11-member team responsible for the report is comprised of geologists, astrophysicists, and archaeologists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Belgium, Russia, Japan, France and Italy.

Comet 2

The 'Devil Comet' is now a naked eye object

Suddenly, amateur astronomers are seeing a naked-eye comet in the evening sky. It's Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, also known as the 'devil comet'. Waiting for next Monday's solar eclipse in Mexico, Petr Horálek photographed the comet last night and found it much brighter than the last time he saw it:

Devil Comet
© Petr Horálek/Institute of Physics in OpavaTaken by Petr Horálek/Institute of Physics in Opava on April 4, 2024 @ Veľká Lomnica, Slovakia; Monterrey, Mexico
"I assume an outburst is in progress," says Horálek. "My estimate of the comet's magnitude is +3.5. Definitely worth taking a look in the next hours and days."

Indeed, now is a good time to look. After sunset, the comet emerges in the western sky not far from the planet Jupiter. Naked-eye observers will see a dim fuzzball. Cameras and small telescopes reveal the comet's magnificent tail.


Northern lights shine over erupting volcano in Iceland

Timelapse video has shown a volcano in the Icelandic town of Grindavik erupting against the backdrop of the Northern Lights.

The volcano there is continuing to erupt - but to a lesser extent than it did in January and February when it sent lava rushing towards Grindavik.

The Icelandic Met Office says it is possible that the deep magma supply and the lava outflow might have found a balance where it continues to erupt but with reduced power.

Grindavik's population of about 3,800 people were evacuated in November following a series of earthquakes that opened large cracks in the earth between the town and Sýlingarfell, a small mountain to the north and it was evacuated again in January the night before the latest eruption started.