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Way to go, everyone!

I am painfully aware that there has been a lot of activity on Stormwatch and not very much feedback from us scientists. Fear not, we haven’t been sitting back with our feet on the desk waiting for you to finish analysing everything. A more accurate description would be that we have been frantically trying to keep up with you all!

So, I thought I ought to look up from my computer code and let you know something about what we have been doing with all your hard work.

Firstly, I wanted to say something about the real-time anaysis you have been doing with Incoming! and Incoming – Trace it. We have been looking at your results and this is proving to be a great way of accurately determining the speed and direction of solar storms. We are working towards automating this system so that, if enough of you agree on a particular event, we can start issuing our very own Solar Stormwatch space-weather forecast!

Over the summer I also worked with a student named Amy to look at the distribution of dust impacts on the spacecraft. We plotted out the distribution of dust around the spacecraft orbit and then compared this with the locations of known dust streams (that cause meteor showers on Earth when our planet passes through them). We found that many of the impacts corresponded to times when the spacecraft were moving through the same streams but other impacts showed no relationship with any known clouds. We are still pondering what this means. I suspect it tells us something about the size of the dust particles and the density of the clouds since you need fairly large particles to generate a meteor in the Earth’s atmosphere so a cloud consisting of smaller particles may not generate a meteor shower. Similarly, the STEREO spacecraft are very small compared with the Earth and so if a cloud contained very few particles that were spaced more than a few metres apart, a spacecraft could move between them and not see anything while the Earth would sweep them all up.

The spacecraft will have, by now, moved through the centre of the mysterious Trojan Points, where gravity is weaker and it is thought that the distribution of dust could be different. The STEREO spacecraft are the first to travel through this mysterious region so please continue to mark particle strikes in the What’s that? game so that we can be the first to find out if there is anything unusual about this region of space.

Thanks again for all your time and enthusiasm,


‘Trace it’ – our plan for developing automated alerts

Those of you who have been following recent solar activity in the ‘Incoming!’ game may be forgiven for thinking that solar storms are like buses. We wait around for ages with no sign of one and then we get several at once!

The great thing about having so many people scrutinising our data from all around the world is that someone, somewhere will be the first to see something and we in the UK do not have to sit up all night wondering if something new is happening. We have seen how solar storms can be identified in near real-time with the ‘Incoming!’ game and now that ‘Trace it’ is up and running, you can help us make a more precise assessment of the speed and direction of each storm.

We intend to analyse your data as you process it. If enough of you agree that a storm is Earth-directed, we will then issue an automated alert on Twitter to ensure that scientists, aurora-watchers, spacecraft operators and astronauts can all benefit from the advanced warning that such a space-weather forecast will provide.

Thanks again for all your time, effort and enthusiasm,


New game ‘Trace It’ released along with more ‘Spot’ data

The long-awaited new game ‘Trace it’ is released today and represents a rolling up of the metaphorical sleeves as we seriously get into analysing the data from the NASA STEREO mission. Thanks to all your efforts with the ‘Spot’ game we have now identified the solar storms in the STEREO HI data up to February 2010. In ‘Trace it’, we use the information you gave us about the start time of these storms and mark these times on a more abstract data product that solar scientists call j-maps (the reasons are somewhat convoluted but we like to think ours are named after Jackie who is the person responsible for creating them).

Trace it example three - after

In these plots we have taken slices through a sequence of images and stacked them to produce a collage of distances versus time for each storm, which appears as gently curling lines on each j-map. We do this because the edges of storms are sometimes difficult to pick out in the images but the human brain is very good at picking out lines in an image. In ‘Trace it’ we ask you to mark points along each storm track. By running your points through our analysis programs here at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, we will be able to calculate a more precise speed and direction for each storm. Once you have become used to this new way of looking at the data, we want to move on to viewing the real-time data in the same way, and then the fun really begins πŸ™‚

Don’t think we’ve finished with the ‘Spot’ game though, we have uploaded all the movies since February 2010 and, as you will have seen in the fuzzy real-time data, there have been quite a few new storms lately. You may have thought it was insanely active already but the Sun is only just beginning to wake up so hang on, it’s going to be an interesting ride and we need you more than ever if we are going to keep up!

Thanks again for your efforts so far,


My solar stormwatch

Now that many of you have been tracking solar storms for some time, we are starting to build up enough data to identify some storms from the large numbers of people identifying them. If your estimates have agreed with others, you should now have these events listed in the ‘My Solar Stormwatch’ area of your user account along with the names of all the other zooites that agreed with you. As we identify more storms we will be asking you to investigate each one in more detail in future games but in the meantime, allow yourself the self-indulgence of sitting back with a warm satisfied feeling that you are doing well or maybe even indulge in a virtual group-hug (amongst consenting zooites of course!). Whether you are included in a group or not, don’t stop clicking just yet though. If you are now a seasoned tracker or coming to the site for the very first time, there are still plenty of events out there that need more clicks before they can be positively identified. Thanks to your hard work and enthusiasm, we’re really starting to see some results!


Solar Stormwatch needs you!

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Solar Stormwatch needs you! It is now over three years since the launch of the NASA STEREO satellites and in this time they have taken many hundreds of thousands of images of our nearest star. My colleagues and I have been valiantly scrutinising these images for signs of solar activity and, more importantly, for solar storms that are heading towards the Earth. Each storm contains around a billion tons of hot solar gases travelling at a million miles an hour and their passage represents a severe radiation hazard to both spacecraft and astronauts.

Tracking these storms through space is very important if we are to provide a space weather forecast for satellite operators and astronauts and the STEREO mission is demonstrating that this can now be done. STEREO is a science mission however, and our efforts are concentrated on figuring out what has happened after the event, much in the same way that forensic scientists piece together a crime from the clues that are left behind. We simply don’t have the resource to be looking at the data in real-time to provide an up-to-date forecast of solar conditions. We need your help.

The Galaxy Zoo volunteers have already shown the power of motivated communities to provide valuable scientific scrutiny to overwhelming amounts of scientific data. We would like to tap into your amazing enthusiasm to help us piece together the stories of past storms and, once you have got your eye in, to scrutinise the real-time data in order to provide real-time alerts to those in the direct firing line, such as the crew of the International Space Station.

My team and I have only managed to study a handful of events so far. With your help, we can analyse many more events and do so in a way that is free of the subjective bias introduced by one person sat in his office making arbitrary decisions. That one person is me, and I need your help! Together we can use STEREO images to learn what it takes to make an accurate forecast of space weather conditions. Space exploration will always be a risky business but with an accurate space-weather forecast, astronauts will have one less thing to be worrying about as they leave the relative safety of Earth orbit and start to explore our solar system.

Chris Davis