Malaysia Airlines MH370: Stolen passport 'no terror link'
A man travelling on a stolen passport on a missing Malaysian jet was a young Iranian who is not believed to have terrorist links, Malaysian police say.
They say the 19-year-old - named as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad - was probably migrating to Germany.
Investigations are continuing into a second man using stolen documents.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing on Saturday, after taking off with 239 on board. The search has been widened.
Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad is second from the left. The young man on the far right is believed to have travelled with him on the missing plane.
Experts have said the presence of two people with stolen passports on a plane was a breach of security, but is relatively common in a region regarded as a hub for illegal migration.
Malaysia’s police chief Inspector Gen Khalid Abu Bakar said the young Iranian was “not likely to be a member of a terrorist group”, adding that the authorities were in contact with his mother in Germany, who had been expecting her son to arrive in Frankfurt.
Without a trace
The authorities’ statement supports an account given to the BBC by a young Iranian in Kuala Lumpur who says he was a school-friend of one of the men who boarded the airliner using a stolen passport.
He says the friend and another Iranian, also using a stolen passport, stayed with him before taking the Malaysia Airlines flight, and that they had hoped to settle in Europe.
Reports from Thailand suggest that the tickets of the two men, routing them to Amsterdam via Beijing, had been bought through a Thai travel agent and an Iranian middleman.
Officials say they still have no idea what went wrong with the aircraft.
NASA's WISE Survey Reveals No 'Planet X' but does Find a Wealth of New Stars
A large, unknown planet with a sweeping orbit that periodically crashes into our solar system’s asteroid field does not exist, according to a new report.
For years, astronomers have suggested that a so-called “Planet X” exists in our solar system beyond the orbit of Pluto, but after an exhaustive search that involved hundreds of millions of celestial objects, astronomers have found no evidence of of this theoretical planet. However, a wealth of previously undocumented stars were found in the search.
The search, conducted by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), involved covering the entire night sky in infrared light and scanning for celestial objects, revealed that there is no object the size of Saturn or larger in existence out to 10,000 astronomical units (AU) from Pluto. (One AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun, about 93 million miles. Pluto is about 40 AU from the Sun.)
While there could theoretically be a less-than-Saturn sized planet in the depths beyond Pluto, all theories supporting the idea of Planet X suggest that the planet is massive.
"The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star," said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University. Luhman and his colleagues published their evidence in the Astrophysical Journal.
Although the WISE data did not reveal a Planet X, it did reveal a wealth of other information, including evidence of star systems in our solar system’s relative “backyard.”
These neighboring star systems, which include brown dwarfs and more active stars, have been essentially hiding in plain sight, the astronomers said.
The WISE data revealed 3,525 stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light years of the Sun.
"We’re finding objects that were totally overlooked before," said Davy Kirkpatrick of NASA’s Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology. Kirkpatrick is lead author of a second paper using WISE data, also in the Astrophysical Journal.
The WISE mission, which took place between 2010 and 2011, preformed two full scans of the sky with a half-year gap in between scans. By comparing data in the scans, researchers can look for moving objects in space. Nearly 750 million asteroids, stars and galaxies were imaged by the WISE project.
You’ll have to forgive my frustration, but given all this unbelievable technology we have in this world today how does a plane carrying over 200 people just vanish?! It should NEVER EVER happen…I don’t get it. I’m so confused right now.
This is a gigantic plane that is composed of thousands and thousands of pieces, if it crashed, where’s the debris?! What is going on here…The Sun should be coming up soon over there. Today needs to be the day. 3 days and no plane is beyond fucking comprehension.
For the sake of the families, let’s give them some closure…
China urges Malaysia to intensify search for flight MH370
China has urged Malaysia to “step up its efforts” in the search for the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that disappeared on Saturday.
A massive search and rescue operation involving nine countries has found no trace of the plane or the 239 people on board - most of whom were Chinese.
The authorities are further expanding the search areas in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.
Flight MH370 vanished from radar en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
Relatives of the missing passengers have been told to prepare for the worst.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang had earlier urged the Malaysian authorities to sharpen its search efforts.
"We have a responsibility to demand and urge the Malaysian side to step up search efforts, start an investigation as soon as possible and provide relevant information to China correctly and in a timely manner," he said.
Patience appears to be wearing thin in the search for the missing aeroplane, says the BBC’s Celia Hatton in Beijing.
The Malaysian authorities are attempting to address Chinese concerns - they have reissued a pledge to fly worried family members to Kuala Lumpur so they can be closer to the search efforts, our correspondent adds.
But one victim’s relative - Guo Qishun, whose son-in-law was on the plane - said he did not see the point of flying to Malaysia.
"If we go to Malaysia, we can do nothing but wait, just like we are doing in Beijing now. If we go to Malaysia, who can we rely on? Most of us don’t speak English," he told the Associated Press news agency.
Timeline: Malaysia Airlines flight to Beijing missing in Asia
(Reuters) - Here is a timeline of events in the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner which vanished from radar screens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early on Saturday:
SATURDAY, MARCH 8
- Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Flight departs at 12:21 a.m. (12.21 p.m. ET Friday), and is due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. (6.30 p.m. ET) the same day
- On board the Boeing 777-200ER are 227 passengers and 12 crew.
- Airline loses contact with plane between 1-2 hours after takeoff.
- No distress signal is given, and weather is clear at the time.
- Missing plane last has contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu.
- Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) says plane failed to check in as scheduled at 1721 GMT while flying over sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City.
- Flight tracking website flightaware.com shows plane flew northeast over Malaysia after takeoff and climbed to altitude of 35,000 feet. The flight vanished from website’s tracking records a minute later while still climbing.
- Malaysia and Vietnam conduct joint search and rescue operation. China says dispatches two maritime rescue ships to the South China Sea to help in search and rescue. U.S. says also sends ships and plane to help.
- Malaysia search ships see no sign of wreckage in area where flights last made contact.
- Airline says flight was carrying 154 people from China and Taiwan, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians and six Australians. Manifest shows other nationalities as being from: India,France, United States, New Zealand, Ukraine, Canada, Russia, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria.
- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang calls Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, urges Malaysia quickly and vigorously push search and rescue work.
- Vietnam says giant oil slick and column of smoke seen in its waters.
- Two men from Austria and Italy, listed among the passengers on a missing Malaysia Airlines flight, are not in fact on board. They say their passports were stolen.
SUNDAY, MARCH 9
- Malaysia Airlines fears worst and is working with U.S. company that specializes in disaster recovery.
- The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board dispatches team to Asia to help investigate incident. Technical advisers from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing also fly to Asia.
- Malaysian authorities investigate identities of at least two other passengers in addition to two who were found to be using stolen passports.
- Malaysian Transport and Defence Minister says Malaysian investigators meet counterparts from the U.S. FBI.
- Radar indicates flight may have turned back from its scheduled route to Beijing before disappearing.
- Malaysian rescue teams expand their search to the country’s western coast.
- Malaysian authorities pore over CCTV footage and question immigration officers and guards at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, concerned that a security breach may be connected to incident.
- Interpol says at least two passports recorded as lost or stolen in its database were used by passengers, and it is “examining additional suspect passports”.
- Malaysia’s state news agency quotes Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying the passengers using the stolen European passports were of Asian appearance.
- Investigators narrow focus of inquiries on possibility plane disintegrated in mid-flight, a source who is involved in the investigations in Malaysia tells Reuters.
- Vietnamese navy plane spots an object suspected of belonging to the airliners. Too dark to be certain the object is part of plane. More aircraft to be dispatched to investigate the site, in waters off southern Vietnam, in the morning.
Vietnam probes possible debris from missing Malaysia plane
Vietnamese navy planes have spotted what could be fragments from the missing Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared almost two days ago.
Officials said it was too dark to be certain the objects were from Flight MH370, which had 239 people on board.
A multinational team is searching for wreckage and ships will try to confirm the find after dawn.
Investigators are also checking CCTV footage of two passengers who were travelling on stolen passports.
Malaysian military officials said on Sunday that the plane may have turned back from its scheduled route shortly before vanishing from radar screens, further deepening the mystery surrounding its fate.
Relatives of the missing passengers have been told to prepare for the worst.
'Cosmos' is back!!!! I can’t believe it’s finally here. Wow….
'Cosmos' returns to TV, with a big bang
Here’s a thesis at the heart of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: Science is engaging and entertaining.
An eclectic group that includes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with her late husband, Carl Sagan, will put that theory to the test. A 13-part journey through the universe and beyond kicks off Sunday (9 p.m. ET/PT) on 10 networks, led by Fox and National Geographic Channel, with an introduction by President Obama.
"The goal is to convey why science matters to the person, to our society, to us as shepherds of this planet. It involves presenting science in ways that connect to you, so Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, with a celebration of wonder and awe,” says Tyson. “Science should be part of everybody’s life. The prerequisite is not that you become a scientist. It’s that at the end of the series, you will embrace science and recognize its role in who and what you are.”
Host Tyson traveled to several locations around the world as part of the big-budget production, but he ventures much farther onscreen via the Ship of the Imagination, a souped-up, modern version of the vehicle in astronomer and author Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos on PBS. This ship can go near — as in a nine-minute voyage to the bottom of a dew drop — and far, as in the Kraken sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. And even farther, as Tyson speculates about the Multiverse, an infinite sea of universes.
He credits MacFarlane, a science enthusiast who enjoyed the original Cosmos, for taking the production somewhere he didn’t originally expect it would go: A big, commercial broadcast network, where it might reach beyond core science fans who would watch on a more narrowly focused cable channel. (Episodes will air weekly on Fox, followed by a repeat broadcast with bonus material Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.)
Fox executives Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly “both liked the idea of doing something that no one had ever done before. There’s really no way of telling how it’s going to do. It could be a disaster or it could be a huge hit or somewhere in between,” says MacFarlane, who likes having the time slot after Family Guy. “The fans of animation, there’s a big crossover (with science), so it’s obviously not a hard leap to something like Cosmos.”
He suggested using animation, with a graphic-novel look, instead of stuffy, real-life re-enactments with bewigged actors to tell the stories of scientific heroes, “the men and women who helped us find our bearings in space and time,” Druyan says. Many are not well known, including Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Dominican monk eventually burned at the stake for a theory of the universe that contradicted church teachings.
The new Cosmos shares the DNA of the original, says Druyan.
"Both series combine rigorous scientific skepticism with a soaring sense of the romance of life in the cosmos. We tell different stories in the new series, and we have greater capabilities in terms of how much more visually stunning we can make the experience than we could back then," she says.
Besides the ship, the new production brings back the Cosmic Calendar, which tries to put the unfathomable 13.8-billion-year history of the universe in the context of a year, with all of recorded history taking up just the last 14 seconds of Dec. 31.
Showmanship can enhance material that is inherently interesting but often presented in a dry way, says MacFarlane, but he says Cosmos does not “dumb down” its science. A mix of real images and high-tech special effects includes contributions fromMatrix and Spider-Man 2 cinematographer Bill Pope, Star Trek series producerBrannon Braga and The Avengers composer Alan Silvestri.
"The best teachers I had in school were the ones who found creative ways to present the material and communicate their own enthusiasm in inventive ways," MacFarlane says, praising Tyson’s communication skills and Druyan’s narrative style. "It’s a show that’s supposed to be exciting. When the original Cosmos came out, Carl Sagan said (he wanted) it to be entertaining and flashy, that people who have no interest in science (would) watch just for the spectacle. One of the things that requires is a flashy production style.”
Cosmos does not shy from topics that have become politically controversial in some circles, such as climate change and evolution. In the premiere, Tyson notes how forests that grew 300 million years ago became the coal that we burn “to power and imperil our civilization.”
He asks: “Is it political if I tell you that if we burn coal, you’re going to warm the atmosphere? Or is that a statement of fact that you’ve made political? It’s a scientific statement. The fact that there are elements of society that have made it political, that’s a whole other thing,” Tyson says. “We’re telling you what science tells us about the world and what you do with that information, that’s what you do. But I worry that people are making decisions about the world under-informed about what science has to say about the world.”
Sunday’s premiere opens with Sagan’s recorded voice from the original series, which will be woven into episodes along the way, Druyan says. “It’s one more way for me to affirm my profound love and respect for him and to continue what he was trying to do, to (share) the knowledge he treasured with everyone.”
'Particle Fever' --A Thrilling New Documentary About the Search for the Higgs Boson
Mark Levinson’s thrilling new documentary “Particle Fever,” which depicts the 2012 discovery of the fabled Higgs boson – the Holy Grail of particle physics, and makes the greatest scientific achievement of our new century come alive, and by making the theoretical and experimental frontiers of physics seem so profoundly urgent and cool. The film captures immense collective excitement when the LHC comes online for the first time, and when two separate teams of researchers confirm the discovery of a previously unknown elementary particle with a mass between 125 and 127 giga-electron-volts.
"Most of us outside the discipline of physics," writes Andrew O’Heir in a brilliant review of the documentary, “can only understand the theoretical backdrop of the quest for the Higgs, and the debates and conundrums arising from its apparent discovery, in simplified or metaphorical terms.” The existence of the boson is taken as evidence of the “Higgs field,” which breaks certain laws of symmetry that otherwise hold in the universe and permits various elementary particles to possess mass, ultimately making structures like atoms and stars, planets and ultimately organic life forms possible.
Levinson swings back and forth, O’Heir says, between the two interdependent realms of physics research, the theoretical and the experimental. “Some theorists,” he writes, “lean toward the “multiverse” model – the anti-supersymmetrical idea that our universe is just one bubble of an infinity of bubbles and create breathtaking mathematical models that may shed light on the many unexplained mysteries of physical reality. But without experimental physicists like Fabiola Gianottiand Monica Dunford, who helped design, build and run the LHC — apparently the largest and most sophisticated machine ever built by human beings – their theoretical models could never be anything more than extremely well-informed speculation.”
The film shows a global community of scientists who are working at the intellectual leading edge of physics, in territory, O’Heir observes, that once would have sounded more like theology or science fiction.”How do we account for the fine-tuning of the universe,” O’Heir asks, “for the fact that the Big Bang and the subsequent events produced stars, planets and ultimately organic life forms, when there seems to be no inevitable or inescapable reason why it should have turned out that way? (Of course, as various progenitors of the “anthropic principle” have noted, the only possible universe we can observe is one that has evolved to have observers in it.) Supersymmetry and the multiverse hypothesis supply different potential answers: Maybe there is an inherent and immutable order and we just can’t see it yet, or maybe we just happen to live in a ‘lucky’ universe, surrounded by kazillions of others that are balls of gas or goo without matter or life.”
“Particle Fever” is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Toronto. It opens March 14 in Chicago, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle; March 19 in Ithaca, N.Y.; March 21 in Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington; March 28 in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Santa Fe, N.M., and Columbus, Ohio; April 4 in Charlotte, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., and Boise, Idaho; April 11 in Albany, N.Y.; and April 18 in Eugene, Ore., Knoxville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, with more cities, online streaming and home video to follow.
The image at the top of the page shows the ghostly blue clouds in the center of the Abell 1689 galaxy cluster above show where astronomers think dark matter is hiding. Abell 1689 is home to about 1,000 galaxies and trillions of stars. Both the visible galaxies and dark matter add to the gravitational pull in a cluster. These gravitational forces act like a lens, and when light passes through a cluster like Abell 1689, it bends.
How would it look to have four suns in the sky? Planets of the HD 98800 system, if they exist, would experience such a view.
HD 98800 is a multiple star system about 150 light years from Earth — right in our section of the Milky Way Galaxy. For years it has been known that HD 98800 consists of two pairs of double stars, with one pair surrounded by a disk of dust. Recent data from the Earth-trailing Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light indicate that the dust disk has gaps that appear consistent with being cleared by planets orbiting in the disk. If so, one planet appears to be orbiting at a distance similar to Mars of our own Solar System. Pictured above is an artist’s drawing of how the HD 98800 system might appear to a nearby observer.
Passport Theft Adds to Mystery of Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet
I have been hesitant to get into this angle of the investigation, but it is being covered extensively, so I’ll share this one by the NYT just posted about 30 mins ago. Is it common for people to be using fake identities? That’s gotta be concerning in terms of potential terrorism. To my knowledge, given how rare it is for planes to crash, they just don’t drop out of the sky. Fuck they need to find this plane.
HONG KONG — Investigators trying to find out what happened to a Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday morning were examining the usual causes of plane crashes: mechanical failure, pilot error, bad weather. But the discovery that two of the passengers were carrying stolen passports also raised the unsettling possibility of foul play.
As of Saturday night, there was little to go on: no wreckage of the jet, a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people aboard, and other than a 12-mile oil slick on the surface of the gulf, no clue that a crash had even taken place. The airline said the plane had recently passed inspection, and Malaysia’s deputy minister of transport, Aziz bin Kaprawi, said the authorities had not received any distress signals from the aircraft. The plane was flying at 35,000 feet in an area of the world where it would not have been expected to encounter threatening weather.
After officials in Rome and Vienna confirmed that the names of an Italian and an Austrian listed on the manifest of the missing flight matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand, officials emphasized that the investigation was in its earliest stages and that they were considering all possibilities.
The arrival board at Beijing Airport listed the Malaysia Airlines flight that lost contact with air traffic controllers on Saturday. CreditMark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“We are not ruling out anything,” the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, told reporters at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Saturday night. “As far as we are concerned right now, it’s just a report.”
A senior American intelligence official said law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating the matter. But so far, they had no leads.
“At this time, we have not identified this as an act of terrorism,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing inquiry. “While the stolen passports are interesting, they don’t necessarily say to us that this was a terrorism act.”
Operating as Flight MH370, the plane left Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just after midnight on Saturday, headed for Beijing. Air traffic control in Subang, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane almost two hours later, at 2:40 a.m., the airline said.
That timeline seemed to suggest that the plane stayed in the air for two hours — long enough to fly not only across the Gulf of Thailand but also far north across Vietnam. But Fredrik Lindahl, the chief executive of Flight radar 24, an online aircraft tracking service, said that the last radar contact had been at 1:19 a.m., less than 40 minutes after the flight began.
A Malaysia Airlines spokesman said on Saturday evening that the last conversation between the flight crew and air traffic control in Malaysia had been around 1:30 a.m., but he reiterated that the plane had not disappeared from air traffic control systems in Subang until 2:40 a.m. China Central Television said that according to Chinese air traffic control officials, the aircraft never entered Chinese airspace.
A European counterterrorism official said the Italian man, Luigi Maraldi, 37, called his parents from Thailand, where he is vacationing, after discovering that someone by the same name was listed on the passenger manifest. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Maraldi’s passport was stolen last August, and he reported the theft to the Italian police. The counterterrorism official said the passport of the Austrian man, Christian Kozel, 30, was stolen about two years ago.
The European official said he was surprised that it had been possible to check in with stolen passports at the Kuala Lumpur airport and that an alert should have popped up on the airline agent’s computer.
At a late-night news conference in Beijing after the arrival of a team of employees to assist families of the passengers in China, a spokesman said the missing plane had no history of malfunctions. “It was last inspected 10 days ago, well before scheduled service,” said the spokesman, Ignatius Ong. “It was all in top condition.”
When pressed about possible security lapses, the spokesman repeated several times that the airline had no confirmation from the Malaysian authorities that passengers had boarded with stolen passports.
Malaysia, the United States and Vietnam dispatched ships and aircraft to the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday to join an intensive search, and China said it had sent a Coast Guard ship that was due to arrive Sunday afternoon. The Chinese Ministry of Transport said a team of scuba divers who specialize in emergency rescues and recovery had been assembled on Hainan, the southern island-province, to prepare to go on Sunday to the area where the airliner may have gone down.
Boeing said in a statement that it was assembling a team of technical experts to advise the national authorities investigating the disappearance of the aircraft.
Lai Xuan Thanh, the director of the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam, said a Vietnamese Navy AN26 aircraft had discovered the oil slick toward the Vietnam side of the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand. The oil slick is suspected to have come from the missing plane, he added.
Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, called his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, telling him, “The urgent task now is to quickly clarify the situation and use a range of means to enhance the intensity of search and rescue.”
Malaysia Airlines said the plane had 227 passengers aboard, including two infants, and an all-Malaysian crew of 12. The passengers included 154 citizens from China or Taiwan, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans, as well as two citizens each from Canada, New Zealand and Ukraine and one each from Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia.
The family of one of the Americans aboard the flight, Philip Wood, an I.B.M. employee in Kuala Lumpur, said they had little information beyond what had been reported in the news media.
“We’re relying on our Lord,” Mr. Wood’s father, Aubrey, said from his home in Keller, Tex. “He’s the one who carries the load.”
The tickets to the holders of the stolen Austrian and Italian passports were sold by China Southern Airlines, which has a code share agreement with Malaysia Airlines, according to China Southern’s account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog platform. China Southern said it sold four other tickets to the flight, to the Dutch passenger, the Ukrainians, and one Malaysian and one Chinese passenger.
Arnold Barnett, a longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology specialist in aviation safety statistics, said that before the disappearance of the plane, Malaysia Airlines had suffered two fatal crashes, in 1977 and 1995. Based on his estimate that Malaysia Airlines operates roughly 120,000 flights a year, he calculated that the airline’s safety record was consistent with that of airlines in other fairly prosperous, middle-income countries but had not yet reached the better safety record of airlines based in the world’s richest countries.
Malaysia has not been targeted in terrorist attacks in recent decades, although the 1977 crash was attributed to a hijacking. But some of the planning for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States was done in Malaysia, which has a relatively lax visa policy. The country is a major trading nation and a natural meeting place for a variety of groups involved in illicit activities. In addition, the main planner of the bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002, Riduan Isamuddin, is Malaysian and is currently being held at Guantánamo prison.
Mr. Ahmad of Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that there had been early speculation the plane had landed safely somewhere along the route to Beijing. But in a telephone interview before reporting the sighting of the oil slick, Mr. Lai expressed concern about the aircraft’s fate.
“The possibility of an accident is high,” he said.
Correction: March 8, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly, on second reference, to the chief executive officer of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya. He is Mr. Ahmad, not Mr. Yahya.
New NASA Van Allen Probes observations helping to improve space weather models
NASA’s Van Allen Probes orbit through two giant radiation belts that surround Earth. Their observations help improve computer simulations of events in the belts that can affect technology in space. Credit: John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA
Using data from NASA’s Van Allen Probes, researchers have tested and improved a model to help forecast what’s happening in the radiation environment of near-Earth space—a place seething with fast-moving particles and a space weather system that varies in response to incoming energy and particles from the sun.
When events in the two giant doughnuts of radiation around Earth – called the Van Allen radiation belts—cause the belts to swell and electrons to accelerate to 99 percent the speed of light, nearby satellites can feel the effects. Scientists ultimately want to be able to predict these changes, which requires understanding of what causes them.
Now, two sets of related research published in the Geophysical Research Letters improve on these goals. By combining new data from the Van Allen Probes with a high-powered computer model, the new research provides a robust way to simulate events in the Van Allen belts.
"The Van Allen Probes are gathering great measurements, but they can’t tell you what is happening everywhere at the same time," said Geoff Reeves, a space scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, in Los Alamos, N.M., a co-author on both of the recent papers. "We need models to provide a context, to describe the whole system, based on the Van Allen Probe observations."
Prior to the launch of the Van Allen Probes in August 2012, there were no operating spacecraft designed to collect real-time information in the radiation belts. Understanding of what might be happening in any locale was forced to rely mainly on interpreting historical data, particularly those from the early 1990s gathered by the Combined Release and Radiation Effects Satellite, or CRRES.
Imagine if meteorologists wanted to predict the temperature on March 5, 2014, in Washington, D.C. but the only information available was from a handful of measurements made in March over the last seven years up and down the East Coast. That’s not exactly enough information to decide whether or not you need to wear your hat and gloves on any given day in the nation’s capital.
Artist’s rendition of the Van Allen Probes in orbit. Credit: NASA
Thankfully, we have much more historical information, models that help us predict the weather and, of course, innumerable thermometers in any given city to measure temperature in real time. The Van Allen Probes are one step toward gathering more information about space weather in the radiation belts, but they do not have the ability to observe events everywhere at once. So scientists use the data they now have available to build computer simulations that fill in the gaps.
The recent work centers around using Van Allen Probes data to improve a three-dimensional model created by scientists at LANL, called DREAM3D, which stands for Dynamic Radiation Environment Assimilation Model in 3 Dimensions. Until now the model relied heavily on the averaged data from the CRRES mission.
One of the recent papers, published Feb. 7, 2014, provides a technique for gathering real-time global measurements of chorus waves, which are crucial in providing energy to electrons in the radiation belts. The team compared Van Allen Probes data of chorus wave behavior in the belts to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites, or POES, flying below the belts at low altitude. Using this data and some other historical examples, they correlated the low-energy electrons falling out of the belts to what was happening directly in the belts.
"Once we established the relationship between the chorus waves and the precipitating electrons, we can use the POES satellite constellation – which has quite a few satellites orbiting Earth and get really good coverage of the electrons coming out of the belts," said Los Alamos scientist Yue Chen, first author of the chorus waves paper. "Combining that data with a few wave measurements from a single satellite, we can remotely sense what’s happening with the chorus waves throughout the whole belt."
The relationship between the precipitating electrons and the chorus waves does not have a one-to-one precision, but it does provide a much narrower range of possibilities for what’s happening in the belts. In the metaphor of trying to find the temperature for Washington on March 5, it’s as if you still didn’t have a thermometer in the city itself, but can make a better estimate of the temperature because you have measurements of the dewpoint and humidity in a nearby suburb.
The second paper describes a process of augmenting the DREAM3D model with data from the chorus wave technique, from the Van Allen Probes, and from NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, which measures particles from the solar wind. Los Alamos researchers compared simulations from their model – which now was able to incorporate real-time information for the first time – to a solar storm from October 2012.
"This was a remarkable and dynamic storm," said lead author Weichao Tu at Los Alamos. "Activity peaked twice over the course of the storm. The first time the fast electrons were completely wiped out – it was a fast drop out. The second time many electrons were accelerated substantially. There were a thousand times more high-energy electrons within a few hours."
Tu and her team ran the DREAM3D model using the chorus wave information and by including observations from the Van Allen Probes and ACE. The scientists found that their computer simulation made by their model recreated an event very similar to the October 2012 storm.
What’s more the model helped explain the different effects of the different peaks. During the first peak, there simply were fewer electrons around to be accelerated.
However, during the early parts of the storm the solar wind funneled electrons into the belts. So, during the second peak, there were more electrons to accelerate.
"That gives us some confidence in our model," said Reeves. "And, more importantly, it gives us confidence that we are starting to understand what’s going on in the radiation belts."