With winter upon us and the threat of snow, sleet or ice seemingly a daily occurrence, our attention to the weather is greater than during the spring or in the fall. We can see wintry weather happening in our own backyard and we pay attention to when and where travel may be difficult. Space weather, not occurring where we can see or affecting our every day lives as often, is a phenomena that is easily overlooked.
However, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) pays as much attention to the weather occurring miles above our heads as what is going on in our own backyard. Their Space Weather Prediction Center is responsible for the operational space weather forecasting for the nation and their customers.
Just like at the surface of the Earth, the Sun is the primary cause of space weather. At times, the Sun can be thought of as going through a “stormy” period where its surface is more active than normal. When this happens, the Sun can send streams of energized particles out in all directions. When these energized particles interact with the outer reaches of our atmosphere, the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) and the aurora australis (the Southern Lights) can result.
With winter being the time of year with the northern hemisphere seeing more darkness than light, the northern lights are more commonly and easily observed in the winter than in any other season. Viewing the northern lights is a big business in locales such as Sweden and Iceland. However, predicting the weather at the surface of the Earth is a “breeze” as compared to predicting space weather. These businesses want to know when the northern lights are going to be visible. And that is where “citizen scientists” can help out.
A project called Aurorasaurus was started in 2012 by Dr. Elizabeth A. MacDonald and is made up of thousands of these “citizen scientists”. This projects allows people to both report auroras and locate where auroras are currently being seen by using a real time global map of auroral activity. By simply downloading their free app and/or visiting and registering on their website, anyone can become a “citizen scientist”. According to Dr. MacDonald, who is a Program Scientist, SMD/Heliophysics at NASA, “We are very data-starved since space is so large and the aurora is so dynamic, (it is important) that people contributing to Aurorasaurus in real-time can help reliably alert each other, and supply valuable data in the process.”
Data from Aurorasaurus can be used to help actual scientists better understand the aurora phenomena. An interesting fact that has been discovered is that auroras are often viewed outside of areas that statistical auroral forecasting models show. The scientists can go back and try to improve their forecasts and models by using real time data of actual aurora events.
Just as important, this project is helping to raise awareness of this phenomena. “Citizen scientists” become curious to what and why they are seeing and want to learn more. They talk to their friends, families and colleagues and pique their interest. Space weather is in its infancy and becoming a part of and shaping an evolving community can be exciting.
When talking about the beginnings of Aurorasaurus, Dr. MacDonald explained, “This idea (Aurorasaurus) began with a storm that was widely visible—that’s when I joined Twitter in 2011 and saw new possibilities. There are many goals, centered around improving knowledge of where and when the Northern and Southern Lights will be visible for the public and as ‘ground-truth’ to help improve and validate the coarse statistical models of the aurora we currently have. Also, there are rare types of aurora and citizen scientists individually and collectively can make discoveries and help document these with their eyes, minds, and cameras.”
She is excited about the possibilities in her field for 2017 and beyond. “NASA has research satellites in the final stages of development launching in 2017 to study space weather effects at equatorial latitudes. The two Heliophysics missions are called ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) and GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk).”
To add more detail about these mission, Dr. MacDonald explained, “In short, the two missions will look at the boundary of space and how energy propagates up from the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and relates to the variability of the space environment where many satellites fly.” ICON and GOLD are two new satellites, with ICON to be located about 350 miles above the surface of the Earth and GOLD 22,000 miles up. They will take similar measurements of disturbances in the upper atmosphere with different vantage points adding details that a single satellite would not be able to achieve. The ultimate goal of this project is better understand these disturbances that can lead to severe interference with communications and GPS signals and to try to help predict when the disturbances will occur more accurately.
You can learn more about becoming a citizen scientist and the Aurorasaurus app and website here: http://aurorasaurus.org/