The First 6 Months: Happy Half-Birthday Solar Stormwatch!

Just 6 short months ago a new Zooniverse project was born. But this one was different. Not a galaxy or supernova in sight. Just one rather special star. Ours.

Solar Stormwatch was set up to track and monitor coronal mass ejections (CMEs) better known as solar storms. There’s a great deal we don’t know about solar storms. We know the Sun isn’t as quiet as it seems and that sometimes, huge solar explosions are hurled out across the solar system. As Chris Davis one of the Solar Stormwatch team says:

“Each one of these storms is a billion tons of material traveling at a million miles an hour, so they’re not inconsequential.”

One thing we do know is that they are spectacular to look at.

In fact they can be seriously spectacular.

There is a downside, however as with each solar storm comes a deadly blast of radiation so astronauts on the ISS need to know if a storm is on its way and which direction it’s heading so they can time their space walks carefully. Solar storms also have the potential to knock out communication satellites, damage power lines and disrupt mobile phone networks as well as produce spectacular auroral displays.

But no-one really knows what triggers them, why they happen or why they are different each time. To find the answers requires analysing thousands of solar storms. Acquiring data isn’t a problem. Since their launch in October 2006 the twin Stereo spacecraft have provided 25 terabytes of data – over 100,000 images. But that’s a lot of data for a small team in deepest darkest Oxfordshire to analyse. Ideally they needed a few thousand research assistants who were happy to offer their time freely and who wouldn’t drink all the team’s coffee and eat all their biscuits so the team turned to the crowdsourcing benefits of Citizen Science and on 22 February 2010 Solar Stormwatch went live.

So what have we found in the first 6 months? The Science Team at Rutherford Appleton are busy collating and analysing the results but in the meantime, while we eagerly wait for them, here’s a summary from a user’s perspective.

1. We have confirmed 229 storms from Solar Stormwatch Spot videos. This will help the team’s research into the speed, direction and frequency of solar storms. Each solar storm must be validated by several stormwatchers to count. The more people who mark a solar storm, the more likely it is that it really is a storm. To trigger further investigation the team need at least 20 people to spot the same solar storm.

2. We have also checked current (“live”) storm data. Around 25 solar storms have been found this way. To do this we use Stereo’s “beacon mode” data. This is a low quality version of the latest pictures transmitted every hour, so we can keep watch on events as they happen. The pictures are black and white, grainy and slightly mysterious but as near to real time as we can get and to see a storm appearing at the end of a video is always exciting. Then there is the wait for an hour or so for the next frame to be added, and then the next….

3. We have learned about circular storms – the “Perfect Storm.” Solar storms come in different shapes and sizes and exactly what kind of storms we see being hurled out from the Sun depends partly on their magnetic fields. The Sun behaves like a liquid which complicates things somewhat and the magnetic field lines that go through the “surface” twist and loop as the conductive fluid moves around. Without any further complications storms tend to end up in a helix shape and appear like a cylinder. If you look at a cylinder end on (the view we get from Stereo) you see a circle, a circular storm – a relatively simple uncomplicated storm. The “perfect” kind of storm to study.

Over 90,000 people have visited the site from 174 countries or principalities. The top 5 countries (ranked in order of highest number of visits) are:

    1. UK (30%)
    2. USA (25%)
    3. Canada (5%)
    4. Germany (3%)
    5. France (3%)

We have just been set a new stormwatching challenge and now we can trace and record individual storms in more detail and later in the year we will learn how to track storms. But Solar Stormwatch is so much more than just watching and measuring storms. In the last 6 months we have found all kinds of weird stuff – caused by camera flares, optical effects, spacecraft rolling manoeuvres and dust. In fact an early Solar Stormwatch discovery was that the Stereo spacecraft are encountering much more dust out there than expected and this has produced some interesting results. Stereo’s eyes have also spotted comets and planets including the Earth and Moon. And we have a real community with competitions, meet-ups, an art gallery and a virtual café with an endless supply of cake. But that’s enough for now. More about those next time.

Meanwhile – if you are reading this and haven’t considered Solar Stormwatch, why not try something a little different? You can do as much or as little as you want. You can choose the task you like best and stick to it or dabble in all of them while you learn about the effect of our nearest star on its neighbourhood. And if you need help just pop into the forum where you’ll get a warm welcome.

Next time: The Particles Strike Back….and other strange happenings.


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch Forum.

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About The Zooniverse

Online citizen science projects. The Zooniverse is doing real science online,.

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