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Project of the Week #13: Aurorasaurus

So today is Project of the Week #13. Do you think 13 is an unlucky number? Scientists don't usually think so - but if you have ever tried to see the beautiful aurora and been out of luck, you are not alone.

What does this project do?
Aurorasaurus asks people to report when they see the aurora in order to build up a continuous real-time map. This allows better forecasting of the aurora, which can alert scientists and also send messages to Aurorasaurus volunteers when the aurora is likely to be visible in their area. More sightings of the aurora helps us gather data to answer more questions about this surprisingly mysterious phenomenon, including little-known aspects of it such as the straight vertical lines known as "STEVE".

What do I have to do?
You cannot register directly on the site, but you can log in through other social media accounts.
(1) If you've seen the aurora, click the big green "Yes" button on the home page which will bring up a form for you to describe it. If if you've got a picture, please upload it, which will be like uploading an email attachment.
(2) If you haven't seen the aurora, you can "verify tweets". The website Twitter.com is searched for relevant words and you'll be asked to read posts to see if the person tweeting has actually seen the aurora, or if they are merely talking about the aurora in general, or - as is often the case - simply mentioning it or a person, place, shop or team called Aurora!
If you prefer phones to computers, there is also an Aurorasaurus app.

Where can I find out more?
Aurorasarurus: Getting started
Aurorasaurus on Facebook
Aurorasaurus on Twitter: @TweetAurora
Aurorasaurus: Blog
Aurorasaurus: Learn about the aurora
Wikipedia and NASA pages
Aurorasaurus in the news

What’s the Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at info@togetherscience.eu. Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details

Aurorasaurus was thought up by space physicist Liz MacDonald; the early story is here and there is a longer interview with MacDonald here. She describes the arrival of charged particles from the Sun that interact with our upper atmosphere to cause the shimmering lights as "glitter bombs".

The Sun, like all stars, does not just give off light and heat. It also gives off charged particles: the solar wind. This may move quickly or slowly, depending on many factors: the shape of the Sun's ever dancing and rotating magnetic field, the activity on the surface of the Sun, and whether one of the magnetic loops has "snapped" and released a solar flare or coronal mass ejection.

The particles are charged because the Sun is so hot that atoms do not stay the way they do on Earth, with electrons neatly clustered around a nucleus containing the same number of protons and thus becoming neutral. In space, with no protection from radiation and no air pressure to hold things together, atoms break apart much more easily. These charged particles become plasma. Most matter in the Universe is in this plasma state. Stars are made of dense, hot plasma; but it can be very thin - you can think of it like an atmosphere, but governed by magnetic fields. When plasma from one source such as a star meets that from another star or a planet, they will not mix like air does, but will probably interact. In the case of the Earth's aurora, the particles get caught between the different magnetic fields and energy is transferred from the solar wind to our upper atmosphere. The planets Jupiter and Saturn also experience auroras.

Once the solar wind and the magnetic field lines it carries along meets the Earth's magnetic field, many things happen - and we do not yet know the cause of all of these! The most well-known item is STEVE - thin, vertical, moving bright shapes that had been spotted before, but only really asked about and given a name when many eyes began seeing them together. Will you be the one to make the observation that provides the data to show us what's really happening?

You have probably heard of the world-renowned physicist Richard Feynman. There is one area of science he was not allowed to study: the aurora. That was because he and his sister Joan Feynman made an agreement as children - he could study everything except the aurora, which would be her job. And she did become an aurora scientist, despite immense odds such as opposition from her family and community.

If you're now enthused about the aurora, this article discusses where to find it. (In my experience, go into the Arctic Circle during winter and head out of town!) Aurorasarus also keeps a "storm tracker" to predict the best timings. If you're confined to your computer, there are plenty of beautiful pictures here.