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New York to Rome in 2 seconds

This post is part of Citizen Science September at the Zooniverse.

Some of the fastest solar storms (coronal mass ejections or CMEs) that Solar Stormwatch volunteers measure have speeds of around 450 km/s. That’s a billion tonnes of plasma being blasted off the Sun at a million miles per hour. If it’s pointing at Earth the CME will arrive 3 days later. Not all CMEs are Earth bound though and any of the other planets in the solar system might be in the firing line.

On July 23 2012 the fastest CME recorded by STEREO blasted away from the sun at a staggering 3,400 km/s (7.6 million mph.) That’s New York to Rome in 2 seconds. This rates as Extremely Rare on NASA’s CME speed scale and we can expect one this fast to occur only once every 10 years. While CMEs might be big you won’t be able to see one if you look up. Solar spacecraft are fitted with very sensitive cameras to capture the tenuous outflow of particles. Here’s how STEREO Ahead’s Cor2 (coronograph) recorded the event.

click for video – published on YouTube 23 Jul 2012 by ve3en1

The source of the CME was sunspot Active Region 1520. An active region (AR) is an area with an especially strong magnetic field and is often associated with sunspots and solar activity. AR 1520 was very photogenic when it was on the Earth-side of the Sun earlier in July.

The Sun on 15 July 2012. AR 1520 is the feature at 5 o’clock.
(photo ©Julia Wilkinson)

Luckily AR 1520 unleashed the super-fast CME after it had rotated to the far-side and despite being an 80 degree wide CME all of the inner planets, including Earth, escaped its blast. A YouTube summary can be found here.

So what’s the big fuss about Earth-bound CMEs fast or otherwise? Well most of the time you wouldn’t even know one had hit us but just occasionally they can cause problems. If the direction of the CME’s magnetic field is southward, (opposite to the Earth’s magnetic field), the two magnetic fields interact producing a geomagnetic storm. Such storms enhance the activity in the Earth’s radiation belts which presents a radiation hazard to low-Earth orbit satellites and the ISS astronauts as they pass through the South Atlantic Anomaly. Geomagnetic storms also generate electric currents which can cause electrical surges through power lines and damage power grids. In 1989 a geomagnetic storm blacked-out most of Quebec as circuit breakers tripped on Quebec’s Hydro-electric power grid. The super-fast storm of 23 July might have missed Earth but the STEREO Ahead spacecraft took a battering from a very large proton storm associated with the CME. Proton storms can damage a spacecraft’s electronics.

This is how Solar Stormwatchers saw the CME in the STEREO Beacon mode (near real-time) feed. The effect on STEREO A is clear but it did survive to carry on its mission.

It’s pretty useful then to be able to predict the speed and direction of CMEs but there is still much to learn about what triggers them. This is where Solar Stormwatch comes in. Data from the project are being used to track and measure solar storms to learn more about how they begin and how they evolve. If you want to contribute to solar science, it’s easy, just click and join in!

Thanks for another year of stormwatching!

As another year of stormwatching draws to a close I thought I’d summarise some of the things we have achieved and talked about. So rather than go on at length here’s a word cloud taken from the blog topics over the last year. The larger the text, the more that word featured.  Enjoy!

www.wordle.net

Thanks to all stormwatchers for your sterling efforts in 2011. Here’s to 2012 and another busy year of watching and monitoring our nearest star.


jules

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 – the solar selection

Last month I attended the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards, held at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, with fellow Solar Stormwatch forum moderator ElisabethB (Els) and fellow Moon Zoo forum moderator Geoff. The overall winner was an amazing photo of Jupiter, Io and Ganymede by Damian Peach showing detail on the two moons  – well worth pouring over in high resolution. Some solar astrophotos made the final list this year. In particular Dani Caxete’s photo of the ISS crossing the Sun was one of our favourites as this required nerves of steel to click the shutter at the precise moment.

Here are the solar related photos that made it through to the finals.

“Earth and Space” category runners up:

Divine Presence
by Ole C. Salomonsen (Norway)

high resolution version
Volcanic Aurora
by Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson (Iceland)

high resolution version

“Our Solar System” category runners up:

May 7th Hydrogen-Alpha Sun
by Peter Ward (Australia)


high resolution version
ISS and Endeavour crossing the Sun
by Dani Caxete (Spain)


high resolution version

And here are some that didn’t make the final:

Another ISS transit
by Thierry Legault
Entitled “solar keyhole”
by Steven Christenson
A different kind of transit
by astronominsk
A fabulous sunset
by Stefano De Rosa
A sun halo
by Niki Giada

More photos and information on the APOTY website and the Flickr APOTY pool.


Science in tents – Cheltenham Sci Fest 2011

I’m just back from 2 days at Cheltenham Science Festival helping to promote Solar Stormwatch and the rest of the Zooniverse with Chris and Steve from the Solar Stormwatch team.

I went prepared with a list of Zooniverse projects to give out and paper models of the STEREO spacecraft. Had to do an emergency repair just outside Birmingham when the S-wave antennae fell off but they more or less survived the journey.

With the help from staff at RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) and The Royal Observatory Greenwich, Solar Stormwatch had a presence on all 6 days of the festival.

 

Me and Steve re-creating the STEREO mission

Our stall was in the Talking Point tent which was a venue for people who had just been to one of the talks to meet up afterwards for Q&A sessions. This was good and bad. Good because this meant we had a regular influx of people and bad because we couldn’t talk to anyone ourselves while the Q&A sessions were happening. However, they tended to happen mid-afternoon so we did have most of the day to lure people into the tent.

The Talking Point and festival goers

The Sun put on a well-timed display on Tuesday with a massive solar flare and CME which was a useful talking point and one of the RAL posters was ideal to show off the Sun.

Solar Flare!

We tried different approaches standing at the door of the tent. Steve’s opener was “Do you have a computer at home?” Chris went with “ Would you like to help us do some science?” I tried “Would you like to help save the Earth?” All of these questions worked to a degree. People listened as we explained how Zooniverse and Solar Stormwatch worked and some of them were aware of the recent CME. The demonstrations of Solar Stormwatch produced lots of satisfying oohs and ahhs as the storms burst out across the screen. People seemed genuinely interested and promised to visit the Zooniverse soon. Solar Stormwatch, Moon Zoo and Old Weather in particular were well received.

Over the 2 days I was there we must have spoken to around 80 people including someone whose father had helped map the Moon for early robotic missions, a huge Patrick Moore fan and a Brian Cox impersonator.

I was very pleased to see an astronomy trail at the festival which lots of groups of school kids were taking part in. There was a slight error in the Sun-Moon distance on the Moon poster but hopefully the teachers spotted it.

Cick the picture for a bigger version

Cheltenham offered a good variety of science – an eclectic mix of serious and fun science with a healthy amount of explosions and smoke coming from some of the tents. Highlights included snail racing in the BBC science Zone, a cold front demo from Reading University using different coloured hot and cold water and a means of getting DNA from soil microbes.

And finally, for those on the forum wondering if there was cake……

Of course there was!


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch forum.

A bit of Citizen Science Communication

If somebody asks you if you’d like to go down to London Town to tell people about how great Citizen Science is there really is only one answer. So I found myself booking yet another London-bound train this time to attend the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference

The Venue – King’s Place


As this was a science communicators conference there was a mix of educators, writers, media people, organisational representatives and students amongst the attendees.

I was on a panel with Chris Davis, project scientist for the STEREO Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Stormwatch science team guru and Marek Kukula, the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Karen Bultitude from the University of the West of England Science Communication department chaired and introduced our session which was held in one of the concert halls. Apparently the hall sits on rubber springs to ensure it is acoustically separate from the outside world. I didn’t notice the springs but it had the look of a breakfast TV set with an audience. Cosy.

Me, Karen, Marek and Chris on the sofa


Our session was: “Citizen Science: public participation in research.”  We had an hour and a half to talk about the role Citizen Science can play in science communication and data sifting. We were each given a slot to talk about different aspects of Citizen Science.

Very briefly our message was:

  • The digital age is producing data faster than researchers can keep up with it.
  • Design the right interface and the public will be happy to help out.
  • Given good instructions the public can classify things just as accurately as “professionals.”
  • It’s an inspiring concept and a great way to get people interested in science.

Marek was first up and spoke about the creation of the Zooniverse, from it’s early days after a conversation in a pub to the current 8 live projects and 400,000 registered volunteers.

Chris was next on how Solar Stormwatch came to be part of the Zooniverse. He was discussing the huge amount of data that the STEREO mission was producing with Chris Lintott and wondering how it was all going to be analysed and before long another zooniverse project was born. As a result Chris said he was delighted to suddenly have 12,000 research assistants.

I was there to explain why I started taking part in Citizen Science and what I get out of it. There’s more about me here  but my story is simple. I’m a latecomer to science after not studying it at school. The Apollo missions sparked a life-long interest in astronomy and astronomy was what I was hoping to get more involved in when, by chance, I found stardust@home and then Galaxy Zoo. I was in the right place at the right time. Science, it seemed, wanted volunteers to help out. Volunteers like me. Being involved in Citizen Science really has made a difference. It’s given me the confidence and motivation to start studying again and I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to several conferences like this one where I hope some of my enthusiasm rubs off. I can’t help thinking that if Zooniverse-style Citizen Science had been around when I was at school my story would have been very different.

Then we highlighted 3 citizen science projects: Solar Stormwatch, Moon Zoo and the UK Ladybird Survey.

The UK Ladybird Survey


The question and answer session produced some good questions covering all aspects of Citizen Science.

  • Are volunteers classifications accurate (yes, for Galaxy Zoo we are at least on a par with experts)
  • What do you do about rogue classifiers (crowdsourcing has built in error correction)
  • How are papers based on Citizen Science treated (just as rigorously as any others)
  • How do we recruit volunteers (conventional and social media)
  • How many people taking part visit the forum (not enough!!)
  • And a couple of people asked how they could start their own Citizen Science project

Someone also asked if volunteers should be involved in leading the research. My response was that I’m quite happy being led – being one of Chris’ 12,000 research assistants – but liked the fact that the data was made available so that anyone had the opportunity to do their own research if they wanted to.

The live audience participation in Moon Zoo Boulder Wars was a success.

There is a  Twitter storyfy of Day 2 here or you can search the hashtag #SCC2011.

The conference tweet tag cloud by @andrea_fallas

We had lots of guests on both the Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo forums that night. I just hope some of them stay to see what all the fuss is about.


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo forums

Spreading the Word

When Chris Davis mentioned on the forum that he would be speaking at an event promoting Citizen Science I thought I’d go along and combine a bit of sightseeing with a bit of crowdsourcing. Last Tuesday’s Celestial Skies: Public Eyes evening was billed as an event to discover how people power is shaping modern astronomy. The DANA Centre in London had invited Chris to talk about Solar Stormwatch along with Zookeeper Rob Simpson to give an overview of Zooniverse projects and Stuart Eves from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited to talk about his research into William Herschel and the mystery of Uranus’ 6 moons and ring. Each speaker was given 10 minutes to do their stuff. Ali Boyle, curator of astronomy at the Science Museum made sure things ran to plan.

Rob was up first and talked about the success of Galaxy Zoo and how that led to the creation and expansion of the Zooniverse. He mentioned all the current projects including Old Weather and the upcoming Milky Way Project and Papyrus Zoo. Chris was next and did a great job of telling people about all things Solar Stormwatch and Stereo in his allotted 10 minutes and managed to cover details of the Stereo mission and the twin spacecraft, basics of solar physics, the idea behind Solar Stormwatch and what stormwatchers do. Stuart told the fascinating story of why he thinks William Herschel discovered Uranus’ ring 190 years before its official discovery in 1977 and why Uranus is shown as having 6 Moons on an 18th century orrery (built using Herschel’s observations) at a time when only 2 had been discovered.

Then followed a practical taster session with computers set up to have a go at Hubble Zoo, Moon Zoo and Solar Stormwatch. Lots of people tried out the sites and I saw a couple of groups working their way diligently through the Solar Stormwatch tutorials. Several people said that they would have a go at home when they had more time.

A Q&A session followed with some quality questions from the audience.

The first question concerned Earth’s magnetic field flipping.
Chris answered this one and said that this happens every 100,000 years or so and explained how a record of the magnetic field at the time was trapped in layers of sedimentary rocks.

Is there a link between climate change and solar activity?
Another one for Chris who explained that while a small amount of global warming could be down to solar activity the majority of it is man made. More here.

How did scientists feel about having amateurs involved?
Rob said that although a few professional scientists were naturally sceptical at first the majority welcomed the use of amateurs into the world of data collection. He stressed that while computers can do many things they are not so good at the complicated pattern recognition required for Zooniverse projects and there are only so many undergrads and PhD students around to use as data collectors! Chris said he was rather pleased to suddenly have 10,000 research assistants to help him out.

What is some people deliberately set out to spoil the results?
Rob assured everyone that each image or video is classified several times and that the nice Citizen Scientists by far outnumbered the idiots. (He actually used a slightly more colourful description but the effect is the same!)

Why do people do Citizen Science?
Rob answered this and referred to Jordan Raddick’s motivation study carried out using Galaxy Zoo data where the most popular reasons people gave for taking part were an interest in astronomy and being able to contribute to science.

The evening rounded off a bit of a solar themed day having spent most of the afternoon in the Science Museum where I saw these:

A quarter size model of SOHO
London Science Museum

De revolutionibus – Copernicus daring to make the Sun rather than the Earth the centre of the universe

The DANA Centre is a good venue for this type of event. They use the cafe space to host a variety of science themed talks so food and drink is available. If you get the chance I’d recommend going along.

The Natchos are good too.


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch forum

Art, chat and NASA inspired baking

Happy Half-Birthday Solar Stormwatch….part 3

What’s the last thing you would expect when joining a forum? Making some good on-line friends maybe? Or actually meeting up with the people you post with (and finding that they really are OK!)? Or discovering hidden artistic talents? Or (and I think this might win) enjoying the culinary efforts of a lead team member who just happens to have a STEREO spaceship shaped biscuit cutter courtesy of NASA? Grin

Told you that one would win!

As well as a place to discuss the science and ask questions the Solar Stormwatch forum has developed into a place to chat with friends and share a virtual cup of tea or coffee and a slice of virtual cake.

The sense of community is important for some participants. It adds another dimension to taking part in the project. It might not be the busiest forum out there but it is somewhere people can drop in whenever they want advice, information, contact with other stormwatchers or team members or just to chat. Some people prefer to lurk – we always have guests – and that’s fine. In fact the majority of people who take part in Solar Stormwatch don’t use the forum at all, which is not unusual. You tend to find this with many projects. However, forums are not only where interesting discussions take place but where interesting finds pop up. Galaxy Zoo found the Voorwerp. Moon Zoo is looking for Moon bridges and Solar Stormwatch found circular storms. So anyone reading this who hasn’t discovered the forum yet – please consider coming along and joining in. It’s the place where the science team raise issues and ask for our help with extra projects. And the place where that unusual discovery is waiting to be made. Don’t miss out!

One forum thread in particular has something of a cult following. The Sun Art thread has attracted several arty types and the results are spectacular. Here’s just a taste courtesy of algwat, Christelle, Deanimation, Quialiss, Galactic Momma, me and resident artist Caro.

All pictures are based on single frames from Solar Stormwatch videos or related images of the Sun.

Posting on a forum is one thing but what about actually meeting up with people? Other forums do it but many people involved in the Zooniverse projects are new to forums and are naturally wary. It’s quite a big step coming out from behind your avatar and shaking hands but after 3 years of meeting people from forums I can highly recommend it. A small group of us had a Solar Stormwatch meeting back in March 2010 when we hijacked a Solar event at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

One of the highlights of the meeting was sitting in the Endeavour Room at the top of one of the Observatory buildings at the biggest round table you have ever seen surrounded by old solar and astronomical equipment. Another highlight was these:

Biscuits in the shape of STEREO spacecraft! Never did establish whether it was STEREO A or B! Team member Chris Davis brought them and took an empty container back home. And the biscuit cutter really was from NASA.

We also got caught up in Word Cup fever and had our own World Cup Competition to find the solar storm that looked most like the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

The real thing
The winner! (Herve Stevenin.)

So in 6 short months we have helped collect hundreds of solar storms, found comets, planets, lots of dust, a World Cup trophy look-alike and established a truly international community.

Here’s to the next 6 months!


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch Forum.

The Particles Strike Back and other strange happenings.

Happy Half-Birthday Solar Stormwatch….Part 2.

Solar Stormwatchers look for storms on short videos taken by the wide angled cameras on board the Stereo spacecraft. However, as well as solar storms the Heliospheric Imagers record anything else that wanders into view. Space is a busy place and the science team don’t know what’s common out there and what’s not or how the cameras are coping with their space environment. We are helping to provide the answers. These are just some of the weird and unexpected things we have found:

Comets
Most of the sungrazing comets we see in the STEREO images are likely to be from the Kreutz group whose orbits take them extremely close to the Sun at perihelion. They are named after Heinrich Kreutz, who first demonstrated that they were related and were in fact remnants of a larger comet that broke up centuries ago. The comets vary in size and some of the smaller ones, just a few meters across, don’t survive their trip around the Sun. All videos are dated which means we can go here to identify the comets we see.

We’ve also had some famous names turn up on camera. Click the images to see the videos.

Encke
McNaught
Macholtz

This video has 10 comets!! Some are very hard to spot. Have a go! Clue – there are 6 in the Ahead camera and 4 in Behind.

Planets

If you gaze sunwards for long enough you will eventually see all the solar system planets as they orbit around the Sun. The Heliospheric Imagers have picked up several planets and brighter asteroids. Venus, Jupiter and Mercury, are bright and easy to spot. Mars and Saturn are a little trickier. They look a lot like stars but the way they move gives them away as all the planets appear to move relative to the starry background.

One planet is particularly easy to spot – Earth. Just after launch the Earth and Moon were up close in the Stereo cameras’ field of view. Because the cameras were designed to detect the tenuous and faint light scattered by the solar wind (100 million million times fainter than the Sun) the bright Earth-Moon system caused all sorts of odd reflections in the camera optics producing rings, flashes and all manner of fireworks. Click here and here to see what I mean.

Earth and Moon
Planets

Thanks to fellow Mod Quialiss for producing the excellent guide to spotting planets including these labelled pictures.

Particle Strikes
As you might have guessed these are particles (interplanetary dust and bits of space junk) which strike the Stereo spacecraft. An unexpected discovery was the presence of much more dust out there than previously thought. When the data has been analysed the team will have a much better knowledge of the distribution of dust around the Sun. This is what a particle strike looks like:

40 minute exposures are required to image the faint solar storms so anything drifting through the camera’s field of view close to the spacecraft will appear as a bright streak.

Solar Stormwatch team member Chris Davis said:

“We think what we are seeing is sunlight scattered off bits of the spacecraft that are knocked off by dust impacts. They look so dramatic because of the sensitivity of the cameras and the proximity of the dust (like trying to take a photo when it’s snowing!)”

You might be forgiven for thinking that dust is just an inconvenience and can be ignored but space makes dust more of a problem as both the dust and the spacecraft are moving. The team have estimated that the impact of a dust particle on the spacecraft could be anything between 3 kilogrammes and 3 tonnes!

Optical effects

Photographing bright objects is always a problem. If you don’t get the exposure right the optics can’t cope and peculiar flares, reflections and ghosting result. As the Stereo’s Heliospheric Imagers are calibrated to take images of faint solar storms a planet or even a bright star plays mayhhem with the CCD and the results can be intriguing. Have a look at the collection of optical effects is on the forum.

And if star clusters and the Milky Way are your thing – we even have them in Solar Stormwatch.

The Pleiades
The Milky Way

What more could you possibly want from an on-line solar astronomy project?

Sign up! Join in! Save the Earth!

Next time: Part 3 – Art, chat and NASA inspired baking


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch Forum.

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.