IST professor aims to educate citizen scientists through beauty of auroras

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Professional astronomers and amateur stargazers alike are fascinated by the majestic beauty of the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) and aurora australis (Southern Lights), with many of them traveling thousands of miles to see the brilliant light shows in the Earth’s atmosphere. Andrea Tapia, an associate professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), is involved in a project that would not only allow people to more easily track the northern and southern lights, but would also encourage everyday citizens to play a role in space weather prediction.

“Our goal is not necessarily just to make it easier for people to see beauty,” Tapia said. “It’s a way to get them involved in science and bigger ideas through beauty.”

“Real-time Auroral Imaging on the ISS,” an idea conceived by Elizabeth MacDonald of the New Mexico Consortium (NMC) in collaboration with Tapia and Michelle Hall of Science Education Solutions, was recently named the grand prize winner in the crowdsourcing contest What Would You Send to the ISS? sponsored by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The team’s idea is to fly a geo-tagged video camera to the International Space Station (ISS) to capture the northern and southern lights in real time. Captured images can be displayed on the Aurorasaurus website, which includes a real-time map tracking Earth observations of the auroras via various sources — including social media. In addition to improving this online platform, images of the northern and southern lights from the ISS can be used as data to improve space weather forecasting and to better understand auroral behavior.

"Dr. MacDonald said, ‘You know, if we’re really going to look at how this (website) predicts solar activity or auroral activity, we need more data,’” Tapia said. “’Just having observatory and crowdsourced data is not enough. We need a camera on the International Space Station.’”

The auroras, both surrounding the north magnetic pole (aurora borealis) and south magnetic pole (aurora australis) occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with particles in the Earth's magnetic field. Solar winds stream away from the sun at speeds of about 1 million miles per hour. When they reach the earth, some 93 hours after leaving the sun, they follow the lines of magnetic force generated by the earth's core and flow through the magnetosphere, a teardrop-shaped area of charged particles and magnetic fields.

The team’s idea to have a camera on the ISS to gather images and data came to fruition when its members discovered the CASIS Contest for Ideas. CASIS is a nonprofit organization that manages research onboard the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. The contest was designed to stimulate public interest in the space station by soliciting ideas from the public to innovatively use the station’s National Lab for terrestrial benefit. The contest, which ran from Aug. 19 through Sept. 16, involved public participation in the voting process to determine winners along with votes from the CASIS Science Advisory Board. The “Real-time Auroral Imaging” project won both the crowdsourced vote and the scientific evaluation portion of the contest.

“It went viral,” Tapia said, adding that her team got 5,000 votes in one afternoon after trailing by 2,500 votes. “And all that was because of the power of the Penn State network.”

As part of the grand prize package, CASIS is awarding the winners a check for $10,000, a three-night expense paid trip to Orlando, Fla. to meet with CASIS officials, a one-day pass to Walt Disney World in Orlando, a special tour of the NASA John F. Kennedy Space Center and a chance to witness a CASIS payload launch to the International Space Station.

The Aurorasaurus website was originally built by MacDonald and her team a couple of years ago, Tapia said, and it is fully functional although not yet complete. MacDonald, Tapia and Hall were recently awarded support by the Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) program. The grant, which amounts to about $1 million dollars over two years, will be used to fully develop Aurorasaurus on both physical and mobile platforms, and to expand the citizen science elements of the website. The team’s goal, Tapia said, is to get people to try out Aurorasaurus, integrate the website into classroom or field work, and to “see what impact that has on being able to predict rare events through crowdsourcing.”

The partnership between MacDonald and Tapia took root about a year ago, Tapia said. MacDonald, a New Mexico Consortium affiliate research scientist and a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) staff scientist who studies space weather, visited the College of IST, where she hosted a meeting with Dean David Hall; Michael McNeese, senior associate dean for research, graduate studies and academic affairs; and several other faculty members. The New Mexico Consortium is a nonprofit research and educational institution formed by the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The NMC facilitates collaborations between LANL, universities and industry. Several IST students had interned at LANL, Tapia said, including doctoral candidate Yan Cao, and had “talked about IST in such a glowing way” that MacDonald decided to propose a partnership with the college.

During the meeting at the College of IST, MacDonald presented the idea for Aurorasaurus. Aurorasaurus.org provides a real-time Google map of auroral visibility from multiple sources: user contributions, filtered social media tweets, weather and auroral oval predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center’s space-based data. The auroral oval is an oval-shaped region centered on the earth's magnetic pole in which auroral emissions occur. The oval moves in accordance with energy transmitted from the sun, Tapia said.

“If someone wants to see the Northern Lights, it is an unpredictable, rare event, especially in somewhat lower latitudes,” Tapia said. “(MacDonald) wanted to enable more people to be able to know with more certainty when they would be able to see aurora and where.”

According to Tapia, solar activity ebbs and flows on a 11-year cycle. If the state is in a solar minimum, the Northern Lights would be visible so far north that no one would really be able to see them. Since it is currently a “solar maximum year,” she said, there is “more auroral activity than years past or year future for another 13 years.”

“We are in a period of time when the Northern Lights are over places where people live,” Tapia said.

The people who view the Northern Lights during the solar maximum cycle, she added, can guide other aurora watchers by taking pictures of the aurora borealis, tweeting about sightings and geolocating on their mobile phones “so that other people can go out and see them.”

While Aurorasaurus makes viewing the Northern Lights a more communal and convenient experience for many enthusiasts, Tapia said, the website was also designed as a mechanism to predict space weather and as an early warning system. On Oct. 24, 2011, a geomagnetic storm raged across Europe and the U.S. Arrival forecasts were off by eight hours and predicted a much weaker storm. The National Research Council estimated that impacts from the most extreme of these storms can exceed $1 billion in infrastructure damage

According to Tapia, the scientific community currently does not have a system to accurately forecast space weather between the sun and the earth. During the solar storm in 2011, thousands of tweets from as far south as Alabama documented the real-time visible aurora, suggesting a new way to significantly improve aurora forecasting, while engaging the public in advancing space weather science. The team behind Aurorasaurus, Tapia said, can develop an early warning system for solar activity that would draw data from many sources: earthbound observatories, satellite observatories and citizen observations. The researchers can utilize information about aurora sightings that is directly entered into the website, but can also integrate tweets about aurora from people who aren’t aware of the website into the algorithm.

“We can combine direct contributions, indirect contributions and scientific data to make a better prediction about whether a true storm is happening now,” Tapia said.

The long-term goals for Aurorasaurus, Tapia said, include re-developing parts of the website to include citizen science participation. Michelle Hall is developing science packages for the website that will contain educational modules that will allow users to gain more capabilities. The research team is also developing an app that will enable users to determine where and how to see aurora on their mobile devices. Once they see aurora, they will be able to take pictures and tag the photos with color, height, size and shape specifications that will add to the pool of scientific data on the website. They will also be able to geolocate themselves and add textual commentary.

“They want to be able to scientifically evaluate what they’re seeing,” Tapia said.

One of the major challenges for the Aurorasaurus researchers going forth, she said, is refining the Twitter function so that only relevant tweets are posted on the website. Since there are many other places and things named “aurora,” some of the tweets could be misleading.

“One of the sticky problems is how do you take millions of tweets, and find the ones that are about true Northern Lights sightings?” Tapia said. “We have to come up with ways to sift through that information and find the truth.”

The researchers’ motivation for developing the Aurorasaurus website, she said, stems from both a desire to help people experience the beauty of the auroras, and also to launch a citizen science project that could be of great benefit to society.

“People are motivated to participate because they think the lights are beautiful,” Tapia said. “If they learn about (space weather) along the way, we’ve won. If they participate in an early warning system that serves as a predictor of rare and possibly dangerous events, we’ve also won.”

To learn more about the Aurorasaurus project, visit www.aurorasaurus.org.

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Last Updated November 20, 2013