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Solar Stormwatch

Royal Observatory Greenwich
in-house, with science expertise from Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and data expertise from Oxford University

In 2009, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich joined forces with scientists from the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and the world’s largest scientific collaboration, Galaxy Zoo. The result is Solar Stormwatch.

Solar Stormwatch is where anyone can help scientists analyse data from NASA’s STEREO mission to study the Sun. The number one aim is to spot and track solar storms across space and to create a user-generated space weather forecast to warn astronauts and aurora hunters of upcoming events.

We, at the Royal Observatory, see Solar Stormwatch as a way to re-invent our historic role as a place of cutting edge scientific research – and enable our visitors to ‘pick up the baton’ of solar physics at Greenwich. They’re following in famous footsteps: John Flamsteed (1646–1719), the first Astronomer Royal, set up a solar observatory at Greenwich, and his observations were later studied by Royal Observatory employee, Walter Maunder (1851–1928). Maunder showed that there had been an exceptionally low occurrence of sunspots between 1645 and 1715, a period now known as the Maunder Minimum.

For Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, enlisting public help means thousands of pairs of eyes on the job – instead of just a few. It’s the only way they can hope to fully interpret over three years of STEREO data.

Right now, Solar Stormwatch is very much still in beta – as we’ve said to our members, we know some bits need a spot of polish. At the time of writing, some of the site’s niftiest (and trickiest to implement) features still have to be pushed live. Even so, we think it already demonstrates ambition and innovation, including a few world-firsts…

A user-generated space weather forecast on Twitter

Solar Stormwatch’s Incoming! challenge asks people to analyse near-real time data from space – to our knowledge, this is unique. Every hour the twin STEREO spacecraft send a compressed ‘beacon mode’ data packet back to Earth. On reaching the receiving antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network, it whizzes through a data pipeline via JPL and Goddard Space Flight Centre before arriving at RAL near Didcot, Oxfordshire, UK. Here, it’s automatically converted from FITS into Flash movies, then sent on to our Galaxy Zoo collaborators at Oxford University. They expertly look after the Solar Stormwatch ‘back-end’ for us. Of course, what this means for our members is that they see the latest STEREO data. It’s not a thing of beauty, but it does let them spot Earth-bound solar storms up to three days before they reach us. How? Every three hours, we automatically run an algorithm on the accumulating results. This picks up any result clusters around particular points in time. If a cluster is statistically reliable, that means members have spotted a solar storm that we can be reasonably sure exists. From this point we can use the collective measurements to make another automatic calculation: this time of the storm’s speed, direction and likely arrival time at Earth. This gets pinged to Twitter as our space weather forecast.

Flickr as a platform for real science

Scientists know that solar storms cause aurora, but it’s simply too expensive to investigate the details by stationing ‘official’ cameras around the world. Up-step Flickr’s photography community. The colours in aurora photos can reveal the energy of solar storms and geotags show a storm’s impact around the world. So, at the Solar Stormwatch photostream we post pictures of each Earth-directed solar storm our members discover, and, extending our work on astrotagging for Astronomy Photographer of the Year, add an expected Earth arrival time and date. Over at our Aurora chasers group we ask members to use the Solar Stormwatch space weather forecast to get out there and photograph aurora. Afterwards, we ask them to match our storm pictures with their aurora shots by astrotagging them with a full GMT data and time stamp. We also ask them to geotag their pictures so our scientists can see the extent of each storm’s effects.

Measurements on video

Asking the public to classify still pictures is a – relatively – simple task. But Solar Stormwatch uses video, and not just for classification, but timing and measurement too. As far as we know, it is the only project to do so.

Personal and collective results on-the-fly

Usually, citizen science projects make their result calculations behind the scenes. Not so Solar Stormwatch. Our members get their results, personal and collective, on-the-fly, thanks to set of bespoke algorithms. Results add up to award badges and members get to see all these at their My Solar Stormwatch page, lending the whole experience a sense of achievement, reward and play.

Forum-based science – a new scientific discovery in beta!

It’s one thing to harness clicks. It’s another to truly harness people power: the unique ability of humans to ask, ‘What’s that weird thing over there that you didn’t ask me to look at?’ When we embarked on Solar Stormwatch, the value of enabling serendipitous discovery had already been beautifully illustrated by Galaxy Zoo members’ ‘Give peas a chance’ campaign. ‘Peas’, so called because of their green blobby appearance, turned out to be a new class of astronomical object. Like Galaxy Zoo, Solar Stormwatch has a forum where members can initiate investigations like this and discuss their questions and discoveries directly with our science team. Already it looks like they’re on their way to an unexpected new scientific discovery about space dust. How many beta sites can say that!

Training at the Royal Observatory

Solar Stormwatch makes its presence felt onsite at the Royal Observatory too. There are events, talks and school group sessions, and the website’s training elements have been re-purposed into a networked interactive for the exhibition Solar Story. It’s completely integrated with the site so that ROG visitors can pick up where they left off at home. They even get a special achievement badge for having completed their training here.

And finally…

We could not have made Solar Stormwatch without the help of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Galaxy Zoo, and our enthusiastic and diligent beta testers. Thanks must go to them all.

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