Tag Archive | solar storms

Mini Project 2: Storm Edge finder, X marks the spots

The science bit- By looking at the changing shape we can study how elliptical or deformed the storms become and how fast this rate of change is. By looking at where they start disappearing, it may give us some insight into the practical limitations of investigating the full structure of these storms- or perhaps, into the sensitivity and resolution of the camera.

So, I have a question for all you Stormwatchers- What is the farthest away from the Sun you can trace the full shape of a Storm?

So to clarify, if you look at a single frame from a movie of a storm, what is the last point in time (which is the same as the furthest point in space) when you think you can accurately place an x at four positions: the front, the back, the top and bottom of the storm?

This is a slight modification and extension to an earlier mini project of finding circular storms. Here the idea is no longer emphasising a simple circle shape- so we can accommodate more awkward/bent/distorted shapes. But what is important is that you can draw an ‘x’ at a minimum of four crucial positions.

I reckon there are quite a few examples of these, so can you find any more storms where the centre of the four points can reach at least the centre of the camera? Below is an example highlighted in the circular storm thread by fellow Stormwatcher lolinda and marked as her favourite 2125. On the left, are unedited screenshots of the storm; on the right, I have drawn the four points and its rough shape on top of the screenshots. I reckon I can do this until 12.90, but then I loose the position of the top left of the storm. When do you think you last see the full shape?

Storm shape tracked

If you have other storms that can be investigated in this way and want to replicate what i did; then I simply took a few screenshots and pasted them quickly into PowerPoint (paint or any other simple picture editor would also work). I then roughly placed ‘x’ where I thought they were most appropriate and put an elliptical shape that roughly followed what I think the shape may be. If an ellipse is not the most ideal you can use a freeform line.

What is the last time you think you can both see and trace the shape?

Which part of the storm disappears first?

Happy hunting,

Neel

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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

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.

What it’s like to be a solar scientist

As one of the younger members of the UK’s STEREO team, I thought it would be nice to provide a few updates about what a scientist does day-to-day. I am currently coming to the end of my PhD, and am therefore busily writing up a thesis. But, of course, there are a few more interesting things to talk about apart from me sitting in front of a computer!

A lot of my work uses the Heliospheric Imagers on the STEREO spacecraft. In particular, I have been spending my time looking at solar storm case studies, and analysing the overall shape of them. The simplest approximation to the shape of a solar storm is a cylinder. If you observe one end on, you will see a circular shape. I found a perfect example of one that happened in February 2008, using the STEREO Ahead spacecraft (in the pictures below the front half of the circle fades away fast but, a semi circle of the rear edge of a circle can be seen further into space). I then spent some time analysing how this storm grew in size as it travelled away from the Sun.

Neel Savani's solar storm case study

Previously, scientists have looked at the size of solar storms at different locations in space and have predicted the growth rate. My work was the first time that we have been able to monitor a single solar storm this far away for the Sun.

One problem with my analysis is that solar storms, like hurricanes on Earth, are incredibly variable from one case to another. It would be fantastic if we could find more examples of near-perfect circular storms. We could then build up a better picture. So let me know if you spot anything interesting, and keep up with the great work.

Neel Savani