Extreme weather events are tracked by scientists, but they can’t be everywhere at once. With this in mind, citizen science – using members of the general public to contribute to scientific projects en masse – has proven to be a huge help. There are already projects encouraging people to track and notify the authorities when tornados have begun forming, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that NASA has asked the world to keep an eye out for aurorae.
As beautiful as they are, aurorae – visually striking convergences of Earth’s magnetosphere with incoming solar wind – are still not entirely understood, and NASA has a vested interest in unravelling their secrets. Just last winter, the space agency sent two rockets up into the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) in order to investigate a particularly energetic part of the iridescent phenomenon.
Aurorae are more than just astronomical fireworks. They are part of geomagnetic storms, the most powerful of which can cause power outages and interrupt satellite systems. Gaining a better understanding of how and when they form will only help the planet better protect itself against incoming geomagnetic storms.
This is the overarching mission of Aurorasaurus, the gloriously named aurora-watching citizen science initiative by NASA. Founded by Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, it harnesses the power of social media, letting users tweet, use a specialized mobile app, or report through their own website whenever an aurora appears above them.
MacDonald noted that in 2011, a powerful aurora swept across the eastern United States, and it was widely documented by a vast number of people in real-time. This allowed scientists to reconcile their predictions of when and where this geomagnetic storm would hit with its actual landfall.
This spurred MacDonald to set up Aurorasaurus, and since its inception it has tracked aurorae with increasing precision. A recent study published this month in the journal Space Weather revealed that the program’s citizen scientists have been able to spot aurorae well beyond the areas predicted by scientific models, suggesting that these models need some modifications.
The project is also being used as a prototype early warning system for emergency responders. While an aurora in itself isn’t a natural emergency (like a wildfire, for example), it shares the same qualities as one, in that it occurs without much notice and is seen over a sizable area.
As Aurorasaurus analyzes information gathered by both computer models and citizen scientists, it sends out “warnings” to other registered users notifying them on the advancement of the aurora – much in the way warnings about a wildfire or hurricane could be sent out to those standing in its path.
Sign up here to join the hunt for aurorae. If you’re not sure where to wait for an incoming aurora to show up in the sky, fret not: The website provides you with a “view-line,” a map trace that shows where the aurora is most likely to occur and at what time.