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Students can help scientists study space weather

By Nicole Krueger
November 20, 2018
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When it comes to the night sky, auroras have captured the human imagination like few other celestial phenomena. The eerie green lights of the aurora borealis figure prominently in the myths and legends of northern indigenous people — and, more recently, an entire tourism industry has cropped up around spotting the often elusive spectacle.

Created when charged particles from the sun strike the atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, causing them to light up, auroras can be difficult to predict. To help improve the ability to forecast these awe-inspiring events, NASA space physicist Liz MacDonald launched Aurorasaurus, a citizen science project that asks sky-gazers to report aurora sightings and uses the data to create a real-time map of space weather activity. The site then notifies users when the northern lights are likely to be visible in their area.

“Space is so huge, and our satellites are very few, so it’s really hard to predict where the aurora will be visible,” MacDonald says. “What we wanted to do with this project was create a network where people could increase their chances of seeing the aurora and also contribute by letting us know whether they are successful. In the process, we’re building better predictive models about the visibility of auroras.

“And if we’re getting a lot people out looking at the sky, we might discover other rare types of phenomena we don’t yet know about.”

While the northern lights are most often visible near the magnetic poles in Alaska, parts of Canada, northern Greenland and the Scandinavian coast, occasionally a violent solar flare will make them visible in more populated areas closer to the equator. MacDonald developed the Aurorasaurus project after a 2011 solar storm produced red auroras visible from Alabama.

Mystical auroras can lure kids to science, humanities

For educators seeking new ways to get kids excited about science, auroras — almost mystical in their appeal — offer a cross-disciplinary entry point that spans the humanities as well as physics, chemistry, astronomy and technology.

“Students should be interested in them because they are beautiful,” MacDonald says. “The night sky can be inspiring, whether you’re in a more polar region or not. The night sky has many different kinds of lights and different kinds of transient features, such as meteors and meteor showers.”

Even if they can’t see the northern lights from their own backyards, students all over the world can study how space weather affects what’s happening on the ground.

“In addition to light, the sun also give us radiation, which impacts Earth’s space environment and magnetic field,” MacDonald says. “It affects our satellites and causes the aurora. By studying auroras, we can understand more about how technology both in space and on the ground is affected by the radiation coming from the sun. Everything from satellite TV to electrical grids on Earth can be affected by the weather in space.”


Educators create lessons related to auroras

As part of NASA’s Space Science Education Consortium, which includes ISTE and other organizations, MacDonald is working with teachers in Alaska to create lesson plans and classroom activities that incorporate seeing and reporting auroras through the Aurorasaurus citizen science project. In the meantime, educators can use the project as a springboard for studying auroras and other space weather. For example, they can:

  • Ask students to observe the night sky and record or report what they see. The class can then compare their findings, hypothesize about possible causes of any phenomena they observed, and brainstorm ways to collect data or conduct research to support or disprove their theories.
  • Track the discovery and exploration of STEVE, a mysterious violet light reported by citizen scientists in 2016. Although it was initially thought to be a new type of aurora, scientists have since been able to rule out that theory but still know little about the phenomenon’s origins. By examining the data collected about STEVE so far and researching how scientists have approached their study of it, students can gain valuable insight into how the scientific inquiry process works.
  • Study indigenous myths about aurora borealis from around the world to explore the synergy between science and folklore and trace how humans throughout history have attempted to understand the natural world.
  • Examine a variety of photos of the northern lights and ask students create artwork inspired by the phenomenon to launch a discussion about how and why nature inspires art.

Regardless of where they live, teachers and students also shouldn’t rule out the possibility of spotting auroras, MacDonald says.

“You can see it more often than you think,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing where you look up at the sky and your jaw just drops. It’s green and pink and red, and sometimes purple, and it’s moving across the sky, doing a complex dance way out in space.

“Really, it’s the unknown — something amazingly beautiful you can look up with wonder at.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick. 

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