Solar storm on St Patrick's Day boosts citizen science

Report your aurora observations at the Aurorasaurus website, with its app, or just tweet it to your friends. Credit: Aurorasaurus

Aurorasaurus received a rush of reports as an intense burst of aurorae appeared in the night skies around the world. The News Miner reported that Aurorasaurus doubled its membership after the solar storm. New Science reported that Aurorasaurus received 160 direct reports and 250 confirmed tweets during the storm.

OK, you probably won't get an aurora image like this. Esa astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took this picture from the International Space Station. Credit: Nasa/Esa/Samantha Cristoforetti

What does it mean for amateurs? The scientists behind Aurorasaurus believe the public can help improve forecasts of space weather - and the National Science Foundation awarded them $1 million to make it happen. 

Professional space weather monitoring is a patchwork of ground and space-based observatories. Even though they can spot a coronal mass ejection when it leaves the Sun, the effects here on Earth are hard to predict. As the CME's charged particles slam into Earth's magnetic field, they generate a geomagnetic storm cascades through the atmosphere. Ionized gas in the upper atmosphere create shifting, glowing clouds. It's pretty but it can play havoc with spacecraft in orbit and power grids on the ground. The Aurorasaurus science team explained in the NSF abstract:

As the aurora is a visible manifestation of space weather, observations of aurora are potentially a means of forecasting its catastrophic extremes. The current solar maximum is the first since the emergence of the ubiquitous use of social media.... This low-cost, citizen science system for improved forecasting of geomagnetic storms has the potential to transform the way space weather prediction is done.

They are making it as easy as possible to send in your reports. Go to the website, or use the smartphone app (iOS or Android), or tweet the news to @tweetAurora. Your observations can help scientists connect the dots between the science data and the extreme effects of space weather here on Earth.

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