March 12, 2012
NASA is getting ready to launch a series of rockets over the U.S. East Coast this week as part of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), which will study ultra-high altitude wind 60-65 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The five sounding rockets all will be launched within five minutes of each other from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Once at altitude, they’ll release a chemical tracer — trimethyl aluminum, which forms a milky white cloud. Cameras at two points, in North Carolina and New Jersey, will monitor the tracers as they move through the thermosphere.
Sounding rockets are generally used for research, most often to take measurements of the upper atmosphere, just as they will in this case. Their light weight allows them to get up to the edge of space without quite hitting orbital velocity. Wallops has a slew of rockets dedicated to this type of research, plus a prime location on the Eastern seaboard. ATREX will be using two Terrier-Improved Malemut rockets, two Terrier-Improved Orions and one Terrier-Oriole.
Studying this region, right around the Kármán line that marks the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, could tell us much about the 200-300 mph winds that blow at that altitude. According to NASA:
This rocket experiment is designed to gain a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.
Maybe the more interesting part is that since the experiment requires clear skies, almost anyone from South Carolina to New Jersey should be able to look up and see the rockets and tracer clouds. The hitch, of course, is that it may be in the middle of the night. The first window for launch opens at 11 pm on March 14 and closes at 6:30 am the next day. If the weather is a no-go, they’ll keep trying each night through April 3. You can keep an eye on the Wallops site for updated launch information.
January 26, 2012
Despite being the strongest solar storm since 2005, this week’s flareup appears to have caused few disruptions on Earth. (As Space.com reports, the Coronal Mass Ejection “hit Earth at an angle, so the electromagnetic burst was largely shielded by the planet’s magnetic field.”)
But the storm did lead some airlines—including Delta, Qantas, and Air Canada—to alter their transpolar routes to reduce potential disruptions to high-frequency radio communication along the way. At least one Qantas flight, reports AvWeb, carried an extra five tons of fuel in order to fly a less southerly route.
We may have gotten off easy. The remarkable electrical effects of solar storms have been recorded in newspapers since British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a solar eruption in 1859 while sketching sun spots seen through his telescope. Just days later, the northern lights—seen as far south as Cuba—damaged telegraph systems, even setting offices on fire and melting wires. On August 30, 1859, the New York Times included this observation from the superintendent of the Canadian Telegraph Company:
I never, in my experience of fifteen years in the working of telegraph lines, witnessed anything like the extraordinary effect of the Aurora Borealis, between Quebec and Further Point last night. The line was in most perfect order, and well-skilled operators worked incessantly from 8 o’clock last evening till 1 o’clock this morning, to get over in even a tolerably intelligent form about four hundred words of the steamer Indian‘s report for the Associated Press, and at the latter hour so completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line was closed for the night.
Another solar storm, nearly as strong as what has come to be known as the Carrington event, occurred in 1921. On May 16, 1921, the Los Angeles Times reported that “electrical influences exerted by the Aurora Borealis…continued today to play havoc with telegraph traffic throughout the United States…. For more than an hour before midnight Saturday nearly every telephone wire leading from New York and Chicago was out of condition.”
The New-York Tribune hoped to calm its readers by noting that the sun would soon “turn [its] spotted face away and end earthly wire troubles,” while the New York Times reported disturbances in France: “The operators at the central transmission stations came to the conclusion that a strange force had got into their instruments, for nothing would go right. Morse instruments, instead of making dots and dashes, recorded one long line. Hughes instruments produced words in what might have been an unknown language, and Baudot, of which French telegraphers are proud because it is very intricate, seemed possessed by evil spirits.”
Newcomb Carlton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “The magnetic disturbances were much the worst ever experienced. A great many fuses were blown out on our land lines and we had great difficulty with the submarine cables.” The story also reports that the solar storm burned out a telephone station in Sweden, which then contributed to a short circuit in the New York Central signal system, which was followed by a fire in the Fifty-seventh Street signal tower.
In 1989, the Washington Post reported on December 18 that a solar storm—or “titanic temper tantrum”—set off radiation alarms aboard the supersonic Concorde in flight, damaged orbiting satellites, and caused a nine-hour power blackout in most of Canada’s Quebec province.
In comparison, Space.com reports, this week’s solar flare caused “minor disruptions to spacecraft and power grids.”
November 7, 2011
For 30 seconds beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, November 9, every television and radio station in every U.S. state and a few of its territories, both broadcast and cable, will offer different programming than usual. Wednesday’s message will be continuous whether by audio, video, or digital stream: This is a Test.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has assured the public that “it’s not pass or fail.” It’s simply the first nationwide trial of the emergency alert system (EAS).
That system has been tested on a local basis every week for the last 15 years, when EAS replaced the emergency broadcast system. But it’s never been tested simultaneously from shore to shore. For one thing, it takes a lot of coordination: from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service. Weather alerts, unsurprisingly, have comprised most of the genuine, local uses of EAS.
But EAS’s roots are not in storm warnings. Sixty years ago, a national system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in case of an air raid during the Cold War. Before CONELRAD, urgent news arrived by telephone or teletype machine to radio stations and fledgling TV networks, where a bulletin was typed in haste and handed to an announcer to read breathlessly on air. In March 1951, an FCC study recommended to President Harry Truman that “basic key stations” of the air defense command (ADC) and select radio stations reserve a special phone circuit and radio frequency to ensure a uniform and sober distribution.
On December 10, 1951, CONELRAD went live on two positions of the AM dial, 640 and 1240 kHz. It was tested nationally for the first time in the wee hours of September 16, 1953. By the summer of 1956, nationwide tests ran as long as 15 minutes and included a selection of tunes by the Air Force Symphony Orchestra. Almost from the start, though, the system gave false alarms from poorly wired connections or even lightning. Once a station on the CONELRAD circuit began transmitting, all other radio stations were to power down.
Commercial radio stations were often based in the center of cities, with their broadcast towers sitting atop the tallest available structures, making a natural bulls-eye for an enemy bomber to home in on its signal. To prevent such radio range finding, all stations other than the ring of CONELRAD transmitters were to temporarily cease broadcasting. Only brief bursts of emergency instructions were issued to prevent enemies homing in on the CONELRAD sites, which were nonetheless set well away from population centers.
Until 1963, the FCC required all radios sold in the U.S. to carry a mark reminding listeners where to tune in for civil defense instructions. Under CONELRAD, the small triangular CD or civil defense mark was also sold in a kit to glue onto the dials of older radios. When the national test transmits this week, we’ll see how that old technique compares to today’s digital reach.
September 28, 2011
NOAA, taking a page from one of the best worst disaster movies, has designed a tiny plane to measure the heartbeat of a hurricane. The real scientists understandably upgrade from sliced-up Coke cans (and sure, if you want to get picky, the movie is about tornadoes), to a state-of-the-art drone. According to the Sun-Sentinel, GALE is a three-foot long, eight pound UAV that can be shot into the eye of a hurricane to collect data that should tell us more about how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere within the storms. Its name doesn’t seem to be an acronym so much as an emphatic prediction of its death cry — after using most of its power traversing the calmer center, operators will send it into the eyewall. With any hope, the data from GALE will help the National Hurricane Center make more accurate predictions about storm strength, an ability proven much more elusive than predicting their paths.
GALE was designed in part with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and cost $30,000; they’ll be tested this year and then sent into two hurricanes next year. It’s not the first drone to check out a hurricane — NOAA successfully flew the ten-foot Mark 3 Aerosonde UAV into Hurricane Ophelia in 2005. NASA has also been using the much larger, 44-foot unmanned Global Hawk to study hurricanes.