The US space agency is using citizen science observations to unlock the secrets behind auroras — geomagnetic storms that are beautiful but can also cause power outages and interrupt satellite systems.
One such space weather scientist, Liz MacDonald has seen auroras more than five times in her life.
MacDonald, now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, founded Aurorasaurus — a citizen science project that tracks auroras through the project’s website, mobile apps and Twitter.
On the evening of October 24, 2011, MacDonald was left amazed — not by any bright, dancing lights in the sky but by the number of aurora-related tweets on her computer screen.
People across the eastern US tweeted about seeing the aurora in real-time. This storm became one of the first wide-scale documentations of aurora activity with social media.
In a study published in AGU’s Space Weather journal, the team found that citizen scientists are regularly able to spot auroras farther south of an area where prediction models indicated.
“Using these observations, we can make better short-term predictions of when and where the aurora is for aurora enthusiasts — and scientists,” said MacDonald.
Though many satellites study the Sun and near-Earth space environment responsible for auroras, predicting where, when and how strongly the dancing natural light display — and the geomagnetic storm — will occur on Earth is still challenging.
After analysing 500 citizen science aurora observations during March and April 2015, the NASA team found that many people reported seeing the aurora further equatorward (that is, farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, and farther north in the Southern Hemisphere).
The team now incorporates the citizen science observations to improve the aurora view-line on the project’s map.
“Without the citizen science observations, Aurorasaurus wouldn’t have been able to improve our models of where people can see the aurora,” said study’s lead author, Nathan Case, senior research associate at Lancaster University in Britain.
Sky watchers can submit their aurora sightings directly to aurorasaurus.org or use the free Aurorasaurus mobile apps.
The project also searches Twitter using keywords to find aurora-related tweets.
Users can then confirm or deny these crowdsourced tweets. The submitted observations and verified tweets are displayed on a global map showing real-time auroral visibility.