Category Archives: EARTH

Small asteroid to whip past Earth on June 27, 2011

Small asteroid to whip past Earth on June 27, 2011.


Track of asteroid 2011MD past Earth. Credit: NASA


Trajectory of 2011 MD from the general direction of the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Small Asteroid to Whip Past Earth On June 27, 2011

ScienceDaily (June 27, 2011) — Near-Earth asteroid 2011 MD will pass only 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) above Earth’s surface on Monday, June 27 at about 9:30 EDT. The asteroid was discovered by the LINEAR near-Earth object discovery team observing from Socorro, New Mexico.

This small asteroid, only 5-20 meters in diameter, is in a very Earth-like orbit about the Sun, but an orbital analysis indicates there is no chance it will actually strike Earth on Monday. If a rocky asteroid the size of 2011 MD were to enter Earth’s atmosphere, it would be expected to burn up high in the atmosphere and cause no damage to Earth’s surface.

A view of the asteroid’s trajectory from the general direction of the Sun indicates that 2011 MD will reach its closest Earth approach point in extreme southern latitudes (in fact over the southern Atlantic Ocean). The incoming trajectory leg passes several thousand kilometers outside the geosynchronous ring of satellites and the outgoing leg passes well inside the ring. One would expect an object of this size to come this close to Earth about every 6 years on average. For a brief time, it may be bright enough to be seen even with a modest-sized telescope.

For more information on 2011 MD and other near-Earth objects, visit


Close Shave: Asteroid to Just Miss Earth Today

An asteroid the size of a tour bus will fly past Earth today (June 27) so closely it will be beneath some of the planet’s satellites.

The rock, named asteroid 2011 MD will zoom by just 7,500 miles (12,000 km) above the planet, making a sharp turn forced by Earth’s gravity before winging off into space again. The flyby will occur at about 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT).

There is no risk of an impact, NASA scientists said. The space rock, estimated to be between 29 to 98 feet (9 to 30 meters) wide, is likely too small to survive a plunge through our atmosphere anyway. An asteroid this size, if it were mostly stony, would break apart and burn up before hitting the surface. Iron-heavy space rocks are better at surviving the fiery entry, however.


Either way, calculations show that asteroid 2011 MD will make a dogleg shift in its trajectory and scoot on by.

“There is no chance that 2011 MD will hit Earth but scientists will use the close pass as opportunity to study it w/ radar observations,” astronomers with NASA’s Asteroid Watch program at JPL said. [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

At closest approach, the asteroid will be above the coast of Antarctica. It will be well below geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth. Experts say there is little chance the rock will hit a satellite, simply because of the vast expanse and relatively small number of satellites.

The asteroid will remain well above the orbit of the International Space Station, which flies about 220 miles (354 km) above Earth.

Objects the size of 2011 MD usually make close Earth passes like today’s event every six years or so, NASA estimates. However, not all of them are discovered. This rock was discovered June 22. The closest recorded space rock pass was made by asteroid 2011 CQ1, which came within 3,400 miles (5,471 kilometers) of Earth on Feb. 4 of this year.

Asteroid 2011 MD will be likely visible in medium-sized telescopes by experienced observers who are able to find and track a moving object. Even NASA doesn’t expect to see much, however.

“We won’t likely be releasing photos of the object since they would only be points of light,” Don Yeomans, of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told “Radar astronomers will attempt observations but 2011 MD is so small that even if successful, there are not likely to be any noteworthy images released.”

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600 tonne asteroid in low pass above Falkland Islands

Will be nearer Islanders, Brit garrison than Japan is

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An asteroid the size of a bus and massing 600 tonnes is barrelling through space toward planet Earth at terrific speed as this report is written. Astronomers say there is no chance that the object, dubbed 2011 MD, will strike our planet but it will corner sharply through our gravitational field and descend to just 7,600 miles above the surface.

Just a hair the to the north and … well, basically nothing would happen

Thus, if you were standing beneath 2011 MD‘s point of closest approach the speeding asteroid would be closer to you than the other side of the planet is: closer than Australia is to someone in London, for instance*.

In fact, as 2011 MD is expected to reach its lowest point this evening above the South Atlantic, only residents of the Falkland Islands and passing mariners will be beneath it (and it will be nearer to them than Japan is, as well as being much nearer than communications and TV satellites in geostationary orbit).

According to NASA the hurtling space boulder is “5-20” metres across and masses something on the order of 630 tonnes. If it were to strike Earth – which it won’t – it would release energy equivalent to a measly 10,000 tonnes of TNT exploding. Even this would be entirely within the upper atmosphere: 2011MD isn’t big enough to avoid burning up on its way down, there would be no surface impact.

“One would expect an object of this size to come this close to Earth about every 6 years on average,” comment the astronomers of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office. ®

*For our non-British readers, simply substitute the relevant Antipodean region as may apply to you.


Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm

NASA – Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm.

The Sun sets behind power lines. › View larger
Modern power grids are vulnerable to solar storms. Credit: NASA/Martin Stojanovski

June 21, 2011: In Sept. 1859, on the eve of a below-average solar cycle, the sun unleashed one of the most powerful storms in centuries. The underlying flare was so unusual, researchers still aren’t sure how to categorize it. The blast peppered Earth with the most energetic protons in half-a-millennium, induced electrical currents that set telegraph offices on fire, and sparked Northern Lights over Cuba and Hawaii.

This week, officials have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to ask themselves a simple question: What if it happens again?

“A similar storm today might knock us for a loop,” says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physicist at NASA headquarters. “Modern society depends on high-tech systems such as smart power grids, GPS, and satellite communications–all of which are vulnerable to solar storms.”

She and more than a hundred others are attending the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum—”SWEF” for short. The purpose of SWEF is to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders. Attendees come from the US Congress, FEMA, power companies, the United Nations, NASA, NOAA and more.

As 2011 unfolds, the sun is once again on the eve of a below-average solar cycle—at least that’s what forecasters are saying. The “Carrington event” of 1859 (named after astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating flare) reminds us that strong storms can occur even when the underlying cycle is nominally weak.

In 1859 the worst-case scenario was a day or two without telegraph messages and a lot of puzzled sky watchers on tropical islands.

In 2011 the situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust GPS units for navigation. Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

As policy makers meet to learn about this menace, NASA researchers a few miles away are actually doing something about it:

“We can now track the progress of solar storms in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth,” says Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum. “This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve power grids and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity.”


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These 3D Heliospheric animated models, developed by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center based at the Goddard Space Flight Center, show how the June 21, 2011 CME cloud might appear as it sweeps past Earth. Credit: NASA/CCMC

They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun. Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing. Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur. This kind of “interplanetary forecast” is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.

“This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster,” says Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab. “The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen.”

Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes. These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers. An experimental project named “Solar Shield” led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

“Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts,” says Pulkkinen.

High above planet Earth, astronaut Steven L. Smith makes repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope (not pictured) during STS-130. He is retrieving a power tool from the handrail of the Remote Manipulator System. › View larger
Astronauts like this one on the STS-103 mission are on the front line of stormy space weather. Credit: NASA/STS-103 crew
Another SWEF speaker, John Allen of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, pointed out that while people from all walks of life can be affected by space weather, no one is out on the front lines quite like astronauts.

“Astronauts are routinely exposed to four times as much radiation as industrial radiation workers on Earth,” he says. “It’s a serious occupational hazard.”

NASA keeps careful track of each astronaut’s accumulated dosage throughout their careers. Every launch, every space walk, every solar flare is carefully accounted for. If an astronaut gets too close to the limits … he or she might not be allowed out of the space station! Accurate space weather alerts can help keep these exposures under control by, e.g., postponing spacewalks when flares are likely.

Speaking at the forum, Allen called for a new kind of forecast: “We could use All Clear alerts. In addition to knowing when it’s dangerous to go outside, we’d also like to know when it’s safe. This is another frontier for forecasters–not only telling us when a sunspot will erupt, but also when it won’t.”

The educational mission of SWEF is key to storm preparedness. As Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado asked in a June 17, 2011 New York Times op-ed: “What good are space weather alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?”

By spreading the word, SWEF will help.

Related Links:

› SWEF 2011 home page

› Integrated Space Weather Analysis System

› Community Coordinated Modeling Center

› Solar Shield–Protecting the North American Power Grid

› How’s the Weather on the Sun? – New York Times op-ed

› 1859 Carrington Super Flare

Puyehue volcano brings Mordor skies to Chile

Short Sharp Science: Puyehue volcano brings Mordor skies to Chile.

Jessica Hamzelou, reporter


(Image: CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Any more pictures like this and there will be calls for Puyehue volcano, near Osorno in southern Chile, to be renamed Mount Doom. Quiet for half a century, Puyehue erupted on Sunday, prompting the evacuation of 3500 people. Geologists say the sudden activity may have been triggered by last year’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

The enormous cloud of ash that exploded from the volcano is estimated to be around 10 km high and 5 km wide, reports Chile’s National Service of Geology and Mining.

Wind has already carried ash across the Andes, forcing the newly ash-carpeted tourist town of San Carlos de Bariloche to close its airport. Puyehue is located in the Puyehue-Cordon-Caulle range 870 kilometres south of the Chilean capital Santiago.

Santiago Rozas, mayor of nearby town Lago Ranco, told the Associated Press that a shift in wind direction on Sunday “means that we will have a rain of ash, with damage for the population and a threat to smallholder farming.”

Last year, David Pyle at the University of Oxford suggested that an eruption would follow the 2010 Chilean earthquake. It’s a case of history repeating, says Pyle, who analysed volcanic activity in Chile within a year of large earthquakes in 1906 and 1960.

“People have seen that volcanic activity can be triggered within 100 km of the earthquake, though no one knows the mechanisms behind this,” Pyle told New Scientist.

One possibility might be an increase in stress levels in the ground underneath a volcano following a quake. “The 2010 earthquake meant a fault system 500 km long slipped by a few metres at a depth of 20-30 km,” says Pyle. The shift could have compressed the magma under the volcano, making it more likely to erupt, he suggests.

Following Japan’s recent devastating quake, we can expect reports of increased volcanic activity in Japan, Russia and Indonesia in the next 6 to 12 months, Pyle says. “I’d expect to see an increase in the number of eruptions, but the net effect won’t be much different from the typical background activity of these volcanoes,” he says.

3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms –

3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms –

An aerial view of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

An aerial view of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
  • Japan’s nuclear emergency agency goes further in describing the extent of damage
  • The Fukushima Daiichi plant was badly affected by an earthquake and tsunami in March
  • Tokyo Electric Power Co. has avoided calling the event a meltdown

Tokyo (CNN) — Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced full meltdowns at three reactors in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March, the country’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters said Monday.

The nuclear group’s new evaluation, released Monday, goes further than previous statements in describing the extent of the damage caused by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The announcement will not change plans for how to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the agency said.

Reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced a full meltdown, it said.

The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., admitted last month that nuclear fuel rods in reactors 2 and 3 probably melted during the first week of the nuclear crisis.

It had already said fuel rods at the heart of reactor No. 1 melted almost completely in the first 16 hours after the disaster struck. The remnants of that core are now sitting in the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at the heart of the unit and that vessel is now believed to be leaking.

We ‘came close’ to losing northern Japan
TEPCO admits to more possible meltdowns

A “major part” of the fuel rods in reactor No. 2 may have melted and fallen to the bottom of the pressure vessel 101 hours after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant, Tokyo Electric said May 24.

The same thing happened within the first 60 hours at reactor No. 3, the company said, in what it called its worst-case scenario analysis, saying the fuel would be sitting at the bottom of the pressure vessel in each reactor building.

But Tokyo Electric at the same time released a second possible scenario for reactors 2 and 3, one that estimated a full meltdown did not occur. In that scenario, the company estimated the fuel rods may have broken but may not have completely melted.

Temperature data showed the two reactors had cooled substantially in the more than two months since the incident, Tokyo Electric said in May.

The earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi, causing the three operating reactors to overheat. That compounded a natural disaster by spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Tokyo Electric avoided using the term “meltdown,” and says it was keeping the remnants of the core cool. But U.S. experts interviewed by CNN after the company’s announcement in May said that while it may have been containing the situation, the damage had already been done.

“On the basis of what they showed, if there’s not fuel left in the core, I don’t know what it is other than a complete meltdown,” said Gary Was, a University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor and CNN consultant. And given the damage reported at the other units, “It’s hard to imagine the scenarios can differ that much for those reactors.”

A massive hydrogen explosion — a symptom of the reactor’s overheating — blew the roof off the No. 1 unit the day after the earthquake, and another hydrogen blast ripped apart the No. 3 reactor building two days later. A suspected hydrogen detonation within the No. 2 reactor is believed to have damaged that unit on March 15.

Europe on Alert for Icelandic Volcano Ash Cloud

Europe on Alert for Icelandic Volcano Ash Cloud: Scientific American.

By Omar Valdimarsson and Ingolfur Juliusson

REYKJAVIK (Reuters) – Britain said flights could be disrupted from parts of the country on Tuesday by an ash cloud billowing from an Icelandic volcano, but said it did not expect a repeat of last year’s travel chaos.

Britain’s Met Office is predicting the plume of ash from the Grimsvotn volcano would cover the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Scotland and parts of northern Britain by 2 a.m. ET

U.S. President Barack Obama is due to fly into Britain on Tuesday from Ireland for a state visit.

The Irish Aviation Authority said flights to and from Ireland could be disrupted later in the week but did not expect problems in the next 48 hours. Other parts of Europe were on alert.

Last year, ash from an Icelandic volcano caused 100,000 flights to be canceled, disrupting 10 million passengers and costing the industry an estimated $1.7 billion in lost revenues.

Asked if the ash cloud would cause some disruption to flights this time, a spokesman for Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said: “That’s the way it’s looking certainly at the moment.”

Europe’s air traffic control organization said if volcanic emissions continued at the same rate the cloud could reach western French and northern Spanish airspace on Thursday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to host Obama and other G8 leaders in France later this week.

Authorities have backed more relaxed rules on flying through ash after being criticized for being too strict last time.

“I think the regulators are a bit more sensible than they were last year,” Michael O’Leary, chief of budget airline Ryanair, told a conference call. “We would be cautiously optimistic that they won’t balls it up again this year.”

Nevertheless, airline shares fell between 3 to 5 percent.

German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer said he did not expect the eruption to disrupt air traffic to the same degree as last year, adding however there would be a flight ban for jet planes should particles from the ash cloud reach a higher concentration than 2 milligrammes per cubic meter.

Speaking to Sky News, British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said authorities could work with airlines to “enable them to fly around concentrations of ash rather than having to impose a blanket closure.”

Grimsvotn erupted on Saturday, with plumes of smoke shooting as high as 20 km (12 miles) into the sky. The eruption is the volcano’s most powerful since 1873 and stronger than the volcano which caused trouble last year, but scientists say the type of ash being spat out is less easily dispersed and winds have so far been more favorable.

“The difference in impact on aviation comes down to three factors: the ash being produced by the eruption, the weather patterns blowing the ash around and new rules about planes flying into ash,” University of Edinburgh volcanologist John Stevenson wrote on his blog.


But some were expecting problems. “It’s too early to tell if Europe will be affected. What’s certain is that when it is affected, there will be flight cancellations,” French Transport Minister Thierry Marianai told Europe 1radio.

Airlines as far away as Australia were monitoring the cloud. Norway’s civil aviation body said the one or two flights a day to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard would shut tonight. A small part of Greenland’s eastern airspace was also closed.

Iceland’s aviation authority said it hoped it might be able to re-open the island’s main airport by the evening as the tower of smoke above the volcano appeared to have fallen.

The Icelandic met office said the plume from Grimsvotn, which last exploded in 2004, had fallen to just below 10 km (6 miles).

The volcano lies under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, the largest glacier in Europe. People living in districts close by have been smothered in ash.

“Yesterday between 2 and 3 (in the afternoon) it brightened up a bit until 8 in the evening, then it became black again,” said Sigurlaugur Gislasson, 23, whose family owns a hotel near the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

“It is like being in a sandstorm,” he said. All the tourists who were staying at the hotel have gone, he added.

(Writing by Patrick Lannin; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher, Niklas Pollard, Kate Kelland, Christopher Le Coq, Ingolfur Juliusson, Michael Smith, Harry Suhartono, Alison Leung, Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence)