Aurorasaurus is a citizen science project designed to track auroras online, the first crowdsourcing project geared toward keeping tabs on geomagnetic storms in real time.

Since it was founded by Liz MacDonald, a space weather scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Aurorasaurus has documented some of the biggest aurora displays in history. But more than just being a repository of aurora data, the project was able to show that reported instances of geomagnetic storms are usually located farther south of what prediction models indicate.

"Using these observations, we can make better short-term predictions of when and where the aurora is for aurora enthusiasts -- and scientists," said MacDonald.

It's important to more accurately predict where auroras will occur because they are indicative of geomagnetic storms, which can interrupt satellite systems and lead to power outages.

Technology to better understand the sun and the space environment near the Earth responsible for the phenomenon are in place but predicting precisely when and where and just how strong an aurora will be remains to be challenging. This is because large geomagnetic storms don't occur frequently, leaving scientists with little data to work with.

Aurorasaurus can provide much-needed data in the form of observations from citizens on the ground. Sky watchers can use either the project's mobile apps or website to submit reports of sightings while Aurorasaurus is also programmed to trawl Twitter for aurora-related tweets, which can be confirmed by users.

Verified tweets and reported sightings are then tracked in real time using a global map, which includes a "view-line." Using data from the OVATION Aurora Forecast Model ran by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this predicts where an aurora can be seen. Once a certain number of reports point to an aurora within a local area or close to the view line, Aurorasaurus notifies registered users near the sighting.

According to MacDonald, the short-term goal for Aurorasaurus was to create an avenue where aurora enthusiasts, both citizens and scientists, can interact. In the long term, the community's growth can be directed toward aiding other disciplines to further scientific endeavors.

Aurorasaurus is supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Photo: Nick Russill | Flickr

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