The Sun can eject billions of tons of particles at velocities up to a million miles an hour. These solar storms are incredibly difficult to predict, but a recently developed citizen science project lets you help track these storms from right behind your keyboard.
Researchers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich have created Solar Stormwatch, a browser-based application where you can watch, identify, and transmit data about the frequency and distance of these solar storms — storms that could one day disrupt our lives on earth.
Taking pictures in STEREO
The data is collected by the Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory, which is a set of two spacecraft, STEREO Ahead and STEREO Behind. The STEREO spacecraft are equipped with cameras built to peer at the 150-million-kilometer gap between our planet and the Sun.
Space weather forecasts
The goal of the Solar Stormwatch project is to eventually predict why and when solar storms occur. 25 terabytes of image data lie within the archives at the Royal Observatory relayed from STEREO. This is far too much raw data for one group of scientists to sift through.
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Analyzing the raw data from STEREO will yield information about the frequency and distance of solar ejections, possibly leading to a rudimentary set of guidelines that will help us predict when these solar storms — which could destroy our electrical grid and satellites — will occur.
Games available at Solar Stormwatch
The designers of Solar Stormwatch succeed where many citizen scientist efforts fail –- they've made available a variety of visual "games" that each have a different goal. The game WHAT'S THAT looks at 25-second clips of the Sun from one of the STEREO cameras, and players search for and tag anomalies like "ghost rings" around planets and particles racing through the view field. TRACE IT looks at the data in a completely different manner — this game plots a series of solar emission images as a function of distance and time and asks the user to trace longer emissions that pass a pre-set distance for further investigation.
The game SPOT uses both STEREO cameras to observe the storms and report solar projectiles, while INCOMING! allows users to look at images only an hour or two old — these are images that have just been beamed down from STEREO.
Solar Stormwatch is producing academic journal articles
Thousands of eyes looking at a set of information also gives a great baseline –- if a large percentage of users believes a solar event is occurring, the event bears merit for further observation. The human mind destroys computers when it comes to pattern recognition, which is another reason to make this series of games and to open this project to citizen scientists. In the first year that this citizen scientist project has been available, researchers at the Royal Observatory released the first academic journal article using data from Solar Stormwatch in November 2011, with at least one more article on the way.
Images courtesy of Solar Stormwatch, NASA, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Sources linked within in the article. Top image shows a solar ejection, courtesy of Solar Stormwatch.