Astro Bob: Aurora alert Feb. 19-20, tiny-asteroid impact update
We might see a modest show of northern lights Sunday night, Feb. 19. Citizen scientists recover a piece of the asteroid that fell over France earlier this week.
On Feb. 15-16 a strong blast of solar particles found their way down into Earth's upper atmosphere and triggered a fine display of northern lights starting around 11:30 p.m. and lasting the night. My older daughter and I punched through more than three feet of snow to reach an open place where we could see it. Little did we know that wading 100 feet into the field would feel like a major expedition. If stars had chins I'm sure they'd be scratching them in amusement at the humans below.
The sun has been very active for weeks now with numerous large sunspots and several significant solar flares. A recent blast on Feb. 17 sent another volley of plasma (mix of electrons and protons) our way. Expected to arrive Sunday night (Feb. 19), NOAA space weather experts predict it will spark a minor (G1) storm. In my experience, that usually means a greenish arc with occasional rays poking about the bottom third of the northern sky for observers in the northern border states.
Of course, it could be more or less intense than forecast. That's what happened on Feb. 17, when we expected a moderate G2 storm, but nothing materialized, at least in the mid-latitudes. So let's try again. With no moon, conditions will be ideal for aurora-hoping. Peak activity is expected between about 9 p.m. and midnight Central Time. Aurora or no, be sure to check out Venus and Jupiter in the western sky during late evening twilight. They're drawing closer together for their big conjunction next month, but even now make for a compelling sight.
Through a telescope, Venus looks like a small, shiny gibbous moon, while Jupiter shows off two gray stripes, its most prominent cloud bands called the North and South Equatorial Belts. All four of the planet's bright moons are visible on Sunday night in a small telescope. Icy Europa shines by its lonesome just above Jupiter, with Io, Callisto and Ganymede dangle below it.
Asteroid 2023 CX1 comes in for landing
Back on Feb. 13, a Hungarian astronomer discovered a new and tiny asteroid named 2023 CX1 about 7 hours before it came crashing through the atmosphere over the English Channel. The cool part was that enough observations were made to plot the 3-foot-wide asteroid's orbit, which indicated that it was headed for Earth. As predicted, it arrived on time and in the right location, striking the atmosphere with the energy equivalent of about 40 tons of TNT.
The aerial impact shattered the small body, which rained down fragments on the ground in northern France. Just two days later, 18-year-old Lois Leblanc recovered the first meteorite in Normandy between the towns of Dieppe and Doudeville. It weighed about 3.5 ounces (100 grams). She and a team of citizen scientists dubbed Vigie-Ciel (Sky Lookout) are still combing the fields looking for more. To see her fresh, black stone, check out the rest of the story .
Also on Feb. 15 around 5 p.m., another teeny asteroid about 2 feet in diameter and weighing about 1,000 pounds (454 kg) lit up the sky and rattled windows in southern Texas near McAllen. Already meteorite hunters have discovered at least two stony fragments from the fall. I'm still waiting for some black rocks to plop into my yard. With all the snow still on the ground, finding them would be sooo easy. Even if I had to sink up to my thighs!