Sunny With a Chance of Solar Storms

Geek Culture

Image: Solar StormwatchImage: Solar Stormwatch

Image: Solar Stormwatch

In space, no one can hear Al Roker scream.

Which is exactly why we need Solar Stormwatch.

Fueled by the minds and efforts which launched Galaxy Zoo’s interstellar classification project last year, Zooniverse‘s latest collective scanning project has people going over space-based observatory footage and looking for coronal mass ejections from the sun: solar storms.

The pair of spacecraft that make up NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) was launched in 2006, and they work in tandem, one ahead of the Earth in its orbit around the sun, and the other trailing us.

And they’ve sent back more than a bit of information: More than 100,000 images so far totaling something around 24 terabytes of data.

“We just need as many people as we can get to look at the data,” explains Chris Davis of the Royal Observatory Greenwich in a video clip. “You can see all this material moving away from the Sun. It’s an immense amount of material. If we had to sit and watch all these movies, that would take us forever.”

Solar Stormwatch, like its predecessors, walks you through a few training exercises and teaches you to look for the basic hallmarks of a solar storm – the one that sticks in my mind is the comparison of coronal mass ejections to a lightbulb shape – but put into practice, spotting them is a bit trickier than classifying galaxies. You’re watching a pair of side-by-side video clips instead of a static image, and there is often activity in several areas of the frame, so it takes a bit of pausing and backtracking and re-watching to see if you saw what you think you saw. And even if you’re pretty sure you’ve spotted one, your conclusion will need checked against other opinions and observations.

As someone who grew up riveted by things like the black-and-white Mariner images of Mars and the stunning Voyager pictures of Jupiter, I’m kind of excited to find out I haven’t really outgrown it.

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