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Amateur astronomers to shed light on solar storms
by Charlotte King and Laura Husband
Posted: 2 March 2010

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Internet users are being asked to help scientists analyse solar storm data from America’s space agency NASA as part of "Solar Stormwatch", a new initiative that was launched last week.

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and Zooniverse, a citizen science project, collaborated for the Solar Stormwatch scheme that asks the public to analyse data from two NASA satellites, collectively known as STEREO. They started orbiting and imaging the Sun in 2006; one drifts ahead of the Earth and the other drifts behind it to provide a constant view of the Sun 150 million kilometres away.

A STEREO image of a coronal mass ejection erupting from the Sun (out of the frame to the right of the picture) in November 2007 with the Milky Way and Jupiter to the left. Image courtesy Chris Davis.

Solar storms, or coronal mass ejections, occur when solar particles interact with a planet’s magnetic field. On Earth this can disrupt satnav systems, mobile phone networks and power lines. “Outside of the protective bubble of the Earth’s magnetosphere solar storms pose a significant hazard for both spacecraft electronics and astronauts,” says Dr Chris Davis from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Becoming a solar storm tracker involves setting up a ‘Zooniverse account,’ logging into the Solar Stormwatch site at and completing a short interactive training programme. Almost anyone can help the project says Dr Davis. “Many motivated individuals will always be able to scrutinise the data far more carefully than small dedicated science teams ever could. Contributing will enable more information to be gleaned from the data than would otherwise be possible.”

The site requires members to study video footage and photographs to identify past solar storms, described as big lightbulb-shaped explosions. Then they may be asked to look at data of real-time space-weather conditions. Dr Davis says, “the real-time data is less detailed but potentially provides a means of making true predictions about any solar storms heading towards Earth.”

Start hunting for solar storms at

Research physicist from University of California, Berkeley, Dr Ying Liu supports the initiative. Dr Liu says, “these efforts will definitely help the public to understand the art of space weather. Solar storm tracking is important because solar storms are responsible for the most intense solar energetic particle events, which can endanger life and technology on the Earth and in space.”

The solar storm of 1859, known as the Great Solar Superstorm was most likely the largest Earth-impacting solar storm in recorded history, causing failure of telegraph systems across Europe and North America. A similar event today would cause even greater problems. “We are becoming more and more reliant on spacecraft for communication, navigation and environmental monitoring so it is increasingly important to understand the potential extremes of our space environment if we are to protect our investments in space,” explains Dr Davis.

Members of the public are already showing enthusiasm for the project. Solar Stormwatch member, Robin Byron Smith says “it is an honour to add my tiny bit to this worthwhile endeavor alongside lots of UK cousins and others around the globe.”