Flying Spiders? And Space Weather?

Believe it or not, some spiders “fly”, it’s called ballooning, and apparently it’s due partly to space weather. So, how do they do it and what does space weather have to do with it?

This comes from the website: Our thanks to Dr. Tony Phillips and

SPIDERS AND SPACE WEATHER: Did you know that spiders can fly? Biologists call it “ballooning.” Spiders spin a strand of silk, it juts into the air, and off they go. Airborne arachnids have been found as high as 4 km (2.5 Mi) off the ground. Originally, researchers thought spiders were riding currents of air, but there’s a problem with that idea. Spiders often take flight when the air is calm, and large spiders fly even when air currents are insufficient to support their weight. It’s a mystery.

Scientists from the University of Bristol may have found the solution. In a paper published in the July 5th edition of Current Biology, they proved that spiders can propel themselves using electric fields.

“We exposed adult Linyphiid spiders (Erigone) to electric fields similar to those which naturally occur in Earth’s atmosphere,” explains the paper’s lead author, Erica Morley. “Spiders showed a significant increase in ballooning in the presence of electric fields.” A remarkable video of their experiment shows one spider flying when the fields were switched on, then sinking when the fields were off again.

Above: This diagram, borrowed from K. A. Nicoll’s review paper “Space Weather influences on Atmospheric Electricity,” illustrates the role of thunderstorms and cosmic rays in creating Earth’s electric fields.

The electric fields spiders use for propulsion are part of Earth’s global atmospheric electric circuit (GEC)–a planet-sized circuit of electricity that researchers have known about since the 1920’s. In a nutshell, thunderstorms help build up a charge difference between the ground and the ionosphere 50 km  (31 Mi.) overhead. The voltage drop is a staggering 250,000 volts. This sets up electric fields linking Earth to the edge of space. Cosmic rays ionize Earth’s atmosphere, turning it into a weak conductor that allows currents to flow through the GEC.

Peter W. Gorham of the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii notes that “the complex protein structure of spider silk includes charge-bearing amino acids glutamic acid and arginine, which might be generated in a charged state as part of the spinning process.”

Spiders have been observed using multiple strands of silk that splay out in fan-like shapes. Instead of tangling as they move through the air, the strands remain separate. Are they repelled by an electrostatic force? The work of Erica Morley and her collaborator Daniel Robert provides insight.

Above: Hairs on the legs of spiders called “trichobothria” twitch when electric fields are present–a signal to the spider that ballooning may commence. From “Electric Fields Elicit Ballooning in Spiders.” 

All of this raises the possibility that spiders may be affected by space weather as electric fields are perturbed by cosmic rays and solar activity. Research groups have demonstrated connections between space weather and atmospheric electricity on a variety of time scales:

  • Days: Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun can sweep aside cosmic rays as they pass by Earth, causing temporary reductions in atmospheric ionization as large as 30%. Our own to Sky cosmic ray balloons have measured these events. [ref]
  • Months: Measurements at the Reading University Atmospheric Observatory in the UK have shown that voltages can fluctuate +-15% as Earth dips in and out of the heliospheric current sheet (a huge corrugated magnetic structure centered on the sun) every ~27 days. [ref]
  • Years: During the 20th century, fair weather atmospheric voltages at sites in Scotland and the UK decreased by factors of ~25% due to a long-term decrease in cosmic rays. [ref] That slow trend is now reversing itself as cosmic rays intensify again.

Could the migration patterns of ballooning spiders be affected by space weather?

“It’s entirely possible, but we simply don’t yet know,” says Morley. “The experiments we have carried out are mostly lab-based, which helps eliminate confounding variables. A next step in the project is to take this all into the field and look for patterns. Factoring in solar activity could be very interesting.”

Who would’ve thought?

Mars Watch Sun-n-Fun

My experience in showing individuals planets through a telescope tells me that when it comes to viewing our solar system planets, Saturn is number 1. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that it’s the rings that make it so popular. Jupiter comes in second, with its equatorial bands and Galilean moons, visible with almost any telescope. And, of course, if you have a large aperture scope, you may catch a glimpse of the Great Red Spot. Venus seems to come in third due to being able to view it in phases, like the Moon. Uranus and Neptune look like small blue-green dots, unimpressive except for the color. Mars isn’t much better; its closer, but because It’s smaller, there’s not much difference except for the reddish color, unless you have a large aperture scope. The best you get with small scopes, is its reddish color.

Well, suppose we move Mars up the list. How can we do that? Actually, we can’t, but Mars itself can, and will, I’m sure. On July 31st, 2018, Mars will be at opposition with Earth. This means that Mars will be in a direct line with the Earth and the Sun. Not only will it be at opposition, but it will be closer to Earth than it has been since 2003, but only by 1.2 million miles. And it won’t be this close again until 2035 and then again in 2050.

So, what’s the big deal? Why the excitement? Just this: Mars will be close enough to see surface details with “large” (14” & up) amateur telescopes. Details like the polar caps and possibly, dust devils.






On Mars, the polar caps are made of water ice, like here on Earth, but also includes frozen carbon dioxide, unlike Earth. But they both look pretty much the same. Now, what about the dust devils? They can be up to 1/2 mile high and 800+ ft. across @ 102 MPH. But don’t think they are similar to tornadoes. Tornadoes form from storm clouds, dust devils don’t. Actually, dust devils have been seen in the deserts of Earth and they form under the same conditions, without storm clouds, under clear skies.

Now that you know what to look for, and when, let me tell you where you can go to see it “up close and personal”. Since our Circle B event has sold out, the Imperial Polk Astronomical Society will be at the Sun-n-Fun campus in Lakeland, FL on July 27, 2018 with a presentation about the event starting promptly at 7:00 pm in the Piedmont Hanger (see below for directions). We’ll have time for a Q&A session following the presentation. Then, weather permitting, our telescopes’ “focal point” (pun intended) will be Mars, but we’ll focus our scopes on other celestial objects also; Mars may be the “star” of the show, but it’s not the only thing out there. In fact, we’ll have 4 other planets to entertain us, along with other galaxies and star clusters.  What a lineup! If the weather doesn’t cooperate, we’ll go online to a site streaming a live feed of Mars. One way or another, we’ll see Mars.

Please note that seating is limited and will be by registration (ticket) only; registration can be done at and typing “Mars Watch Sun-n-Fun” in the “search” box, then clicking “Mars Watch Sun-n-Fun” in the drop down box and clicking “Register” on the “Mars Watch Sun-n-Fun” page. There is no cost. So, register now to make sure you get a seat, and, be sure to print your ticket and bring it with you.

Directions: Once at the Sun-n-Fun campus off of Old Medulla Rd., use the Rocky Road entrance onto the campus. You’ll see a plane on the right as you turn in. Turn right on the drive on the right, in front of the plane, as soon as you turn in. The Piedmont Hanger is the second bldg. on the left.

Solar Minimum Update

Updated July 16, 2018:

Has anyone noticed anything different about the Sun? Anything unusual? Well, there’s nothing different, nothing unusual. The Sun is just going through its normal cycle. So, if you’ve looked lately, you’ve probably noticed that Sunspots are becoming rarer. The Sun goes through cycles. These cycles are measured by the number of Sunspots seen on the Sun’s surface, that is, the Earth-facing side. Each cycle lasts for about 11 years, with slight variations of time in each cycle.

The solar cycle was discovered in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, and using other observations, reconstructed the cycle back to 1745. Prior cycles were reconstructed from observations going back as far as Galileo and others in the early 1600’s. We are presently in cycle 24.  Right now, the Sunspot number is decreasing, and it has been for some time. Let’s look at the numbers.

Cycle 24 peaked in April, 2014 with 101 Sunspots, the weakest in a hundred years. There was only 1 day in 2014 with no Sunspots. 2015 had 0 spotless days. 2016 had 32 spotless days. 2017 had 104 spotless day. As of July 16 of 2018, there have been 105 spotless days this year, yielding a yearly percentage of 54% so far. The last “spotless” days stretch, ending June 12, was 7 days. So far, this “spotless days” stretch is 18 days. The minimum is expected to “peak” in 2019-2020.

But even with this minimum, there is still activity to be observed. There are still the occasional flares and CME’s (Coronal Mass Ejections). And then there are the “holes” in the Sun’s atmosphere (coronal holes) that let stronger than normal streams of solar wind, charged particles, target the Earth’s atmosphere and produce those awesome auroras in the high latitudes. So if you have a solar telescope, keep watching, it’s not hopeless.

Keep checking back, we’ll keep you updated weekly.

Parker Solar Probe

Back in mid-March, we posted an article about sending your name to the Sun on the Parker Solar Probe. Have you signed up yet? If not, you better hurry. The probe successfully completed a round of tests mimicking the conditions the spacecraft will face in space throughout its seven-year mission. The testing included checking the spacecraft’s functions under hot and cold extremes, cycling the temperatures in a thermal vacuum chamber back and forth between hot and cold, making sure Parker Solar Probe’s systems and components operate properly.

Parker is now in Titusville, FL where it will go through its final integration and testing at Astrotech Space Operations before launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center this summer. The Parker Solar Probe’s launch window opens on July 31, 2018.

The probe is designed to travel through the Sun’s corona, the outer layer of its atmosphere, at a temperature of 2,500 degrees F, 4 million miles from the Sun’s surface. The shield protecting the four groups of instruments is like nothing designed before. The probe will travel at a speed of about 430,000 mph.

The probe will be launched aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the second largest payload delivery system in the world. Only the new SpaceX Falcon Heavy is larger. The Delta IV uses two liquid fuel boosters and a second stage to achieve orbit. The first stage and two boosters produce 710,000 pounds of thrust each. That’s a lot of horsepower.

Stay tuned as we get closer to launch date and thereafter. We’re sure you’ll want to know more about the Sun as the data comes in.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Man of Extraordinary Talents

I’m sure everyone has heard the name Leonardo Da Vinci, an extraordinary man in anyone’s book. As one can easily see by his drawings (below) of the late 1400’s into the early 1500’s, he was a visionary. Many “modern” inventions sprang from his concepts. Consider his concepts of flight, warfare (a tank and a submarine), his knowledge of the human anatomy, botany and the list goes on.



One that you may not know, or suspect, was astronomy. He even has an astronomical effect named after him. Have you ever noticed the crescent Moon within a few days after a new Moon and you can actually see the entire face of the Moon in subdued light?

Leonardo was the first one to offer a theory on the phenomena. He believed the “glow” of the unlighted portion of the Moon was due to a reflection of Sunlight off the Earth. And he was right. Hence, this is now called “The Da Vinci Glow”.  As with his other many ideas, this one is recorded in his “notebook”.

So, if you didn’t know, you can add this to your list of astronomy trivia. For more information and a nice picture from Iowa, visit

And the next night or two will be the time to watch, otherwise, you’ll have to wait until the next new moon.

What We Do

Anyone who has paroused our website, probably has an idea of what we are about. But you may not know as much as we would like you to know. So, I thought I would let you in on the real workings of the Imperial Polk Astronomical Society.

Here’s what we do (and have done):

You can see by our schedule that we do public presentations and observing sessions at Circle B Bar Reserve, Colt Creek State Park and Mackay Garden and Lakeside Preserve in Polk County, FL. We “rotate” between these parks on a regular basis.  Our presentations are on basic astronomy, basic enough that ages 5 to 95 can understand. We want all to be able to understand the basics of astronomy and enjoy the beauty and wonders of the universe.

Beside the three local parks, we also do presentations and observing sessions at private communities, groups such as the Civil Air Patrol, Homeschooling groups and the Seminole Nation State-wide Pow Wow. We work with Scouts and Royal Rangers to get their Astronomy Awards.

Our events at Circle B have included their Summer Camp for kids, during which we do presentations and solar observing. We participate in their “Water, Wings and Wild Things” for kids, with a booth displaying information on light pollution and its effect on animals, plants and people. We do solar observing there also.

At Bok Tower, we participate in their Harmony Dark Sky Celebration, along with other astronomy groups, to treat hundreds of people to the wonders of the universe through telescopes. Bok also puts on special observing events, such as meteor watches during meteor showers and family camp-outs and we are there with our scopes. Bok hosts an Earth Day event for school children and we are there to talk about how the Sun affects our climate and, of course, do solar observing.

We have done Astronomy Night at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and presently are working with them to help get their Frank Lloyd Wright designed planetarium back into peak operating condition for public use.

At the Sun-n-Fun Fly-in and Expo in Lakeland, the second largest air show in the U.S., we do daily solar observing, showing everyone how to track Sunspots as they cross the face of the Sun, using this as a teaching tool relating to solar activity. We teach about the Sun and what it means to us. Then at night, we again use our scopes to introduce people to the wonders of the universe.

Wherever we go, our mission is to introduce people to the wonders and beauty of the universe through teaching and observing. Our scopes are open to the public and our knowledge is there for the taking. So if you want to learn about the universe and see it up close, come out to our events and join in the fun. If you’re looking for a group with a common purpose (astronomy), we would gladly have you join us. So, if you were wondering about us, now you know.

Until later, clear skies and keep looking up.

Messier List with Location Maps

Our mission as an astronomical society is to educate the general public in the basics of astronomy in order to appreciate and enjoy the wonders and the beauty of the universe. To stay true to our mission and our vision, as you can see by our schedule and other posts, we also provide various kinds of astronomical information from time to time.

If you have a telescope or binoculars, here’s a little something to help you in your quest for observing the Messier objects. It’s the M list and star charts to help you locate them. Of course, if you have a “Go To” telescope, all you need is the list so you can simply input the M (Messier) number into the telescope, and have it “go to” your choice. But, some say that’s no way to learn. “Star hopping” by using charts is the “only” way to go. Well, whatever method you want to use, here’s the list and charts. Just click on the link, and you can download the PDF.

Messier list and chart

Here’s a suggestion: because the list is by number, you have to “jump around” the list to find objects in the same area of the sky. If you don’t mind doing a little work, make a spreadsheet with all of the given information, then alphabetize the list by constellation. That way, you’ll have all objects in each constellation grouped together so you can stay in one area to find several objects before moving to another area of sky.

Just in case you don’t know about Messier, here’s the history:
Charles Messier was a French astronomer (26 June 1730 – 12 April 1817). Charles’ interest in astronomy was stimulated by the appearance of a six-tailed comet in 1744 and an annular solar eclipse seen from his hometown on July 25th, 1748. He was encouraged to keep records of his observations. Messier’s first documented observation was that of the Mercury transit of 6 May 1753. In 1764, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1769, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and on 30 June 1770, he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.

Messier’s passion was comets, so he devoted his astronomy occupation to “hunting” for comets. Although he did discover 13 comets, most of his discoveries were other fixed diffuse objects in the night sky which could be mistaken for comets. His discoveries were all from his vantage point in Paris, France using a 100 mm (4″) refractor. Although not all of the discoveries cataloged were actually his, there was no objection to attributing them to him. His catalog contains 110 objects, including galaxies, planetary nebulae, other types of nebulae, and star clusters (open and globular).

The Messier catalog has long been used by amateur astronomy clubs as an aid in learning how to locate celestial objects. It very well may be the best known catalog today. We hope you use it and enjoy the view.

Send your name to the Sun

Want to take a trip to the Sun? Maybe you can’t go, but here’s how you can send your name.  NASA is inviting people worldwide to submit their name to be placed on a microchip on the Parker Solar Probe to be launched in the Summer of 2018.

The probe is designed to travel through the Sun’s corona, the outer layer of its atmosphere, at a temperature of 2,500 degrees F, 4 million miles from the Sun’s surface. The shield protecting the four groups of instruments is like nothing designed before. The probe will travel at a speed of about 430,000 mph.

NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names online to be placed on a microchip aboard NASA’s historic Parker Solar Probe mission. And your name will go along for the ride.

You can register on the NASA website:

Register now and send your name to the Sun. Deadline is April 27, 2018.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, will soon be upon us.

And you’re wondering what a “green blooded” leprechaun has to do with astronomy, right?

Well, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the celestial rainbow. At least, none has been discovered yet. The closest we have come to it is the probability of diamond “rain” in the atmosphere of Uranus. Maybe that’s better, but it’s not a pot of gold.

But maybe there is a better connection. If you’re a “Trekkie”,

You may have thought about this: Take your typical leprechaun, for instance. And take your typical Vulcan (of Star Trek fame).

See any common trait here? Check the ears. And don’t forget the Vulcan copper-based green blood.

Got it?

Live Long and Prosper


NASA’s Osiris-Rex is a space probe designed to travel to an asteroid, orbit around it, gather some material from it then return to Earth. Osiris-Rex was launched on September 8, 2016.
Now, OSIRIS-REx is going to fly past Earth on Sept. 22nd and sling-shot itself toward “Bennu.”, an asteroid classified as potentially hazardous to Earth. At its closest approach, OSIRIS-REx will be only 10,711 miles above Earth’s surface, inside the orbit of geosynchronous satellites.
Bennu crosses Earth’s orbit every six years and in 2135, the asteroid may enter what is called a “keyhole” between the Earth and the Moon where the gravitational pull of Earth could slightly change Bennu’s orbit, potentially putting it on course for Earth later in the century. Currently, the odds of a collision 150+ years from now are no more than about 1 in 2700, small, but enough to prompt an $800 million space mission.
The depiction below will give you an idea of just how large Bennu is.

Well, on September 22, Osiris-REx performed admirably. It dipped down over Antarctica, picking up another 8,450 mph, and sped off at about 19,000 mph, heading for Bennu.

Osiris-Rex is scheduled to arrive at Bennu in August of 2018. There, it will spend more than a year flying in close proximity to Bennu using five instruments to survey the asteroid. The resulting maps will be used to pinpoint a safe sampling site, where the probe can each out with a mechanical arm and gather material from the asteroid’s surface. If all goes as planned, Osiris-Rex will return to Earth in the Fall of 2023 for the samples to be analyzed.
We’ll keep you posted over the next 6 years or so, so stay tuned.