How your aurora photographs are helping NASA study solar storms

A coronal aurora appeared over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024.
A coronal aurora appears over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024. NASA/Mara Johnson-Groh

This week has seen one of the most dramatic solar storms in decades, leading to views of auroras seen around the world as charged particles from the sun interacted with Earth’s atmosphere. But the events weren’t only notable for the gorgeous colors seen in the sky — they are also a way for scientists to learn about the sun and how its activity varies over time.

Scientists know that the sun operates on a roughly 11-year cycle of increasing and decreasing activity. We are currently heading toward solar maximum, when the sun’s activity peaks, but even so the solar storms observed recently were far more powerful than is typical for this period of the cycle. That gave NASA scientists an opportunity for collecting valuable data.

“We’ll be studying this event for years,” said Teresa Nieves-Chinchilla, acting director of NASA’s Moon to Mars (M2M) Space Weather Analysis Office, in a statement. “It will help us test the limits of our models and understanding of solar storms.”

The period of solar storms began May 7, with a barrage of solar flares and outbursts of energy called coronal mass ejections occurring over the following several days. This culminated with the most powerful solar flare seen in the current cycle on May 14. It takes some time for the effects to travel from the sun to Earth, so the geomagnetic storms here began on May 10 and lasted across the weekend.

It was this solar storm that created the widely seen auroras, and many amateur astronomers and even regular people without any particular astronomical knowledge were able to capture beautiful images because of developing camera technology.

“Cameras — even standard cell phone cameras — are much more sensitive to the colors of the aurora than they were in the past,” said Elizabeth MacDonald, NASA heliophysics citizen science lead. “By collecting photos from around the world, we have a huge opportunity to learn more about auroras through citizen science.”

There isn’t a simple way to measure the strength of a geomagnetic storm, but this one was given the highest rating of G5, which hasn’t been used since 2003. One thing that was particularly notable about this geomagnetic storm was how far south of the North Pole the auroras were visible, as they are typically only seen around polar regions.

McDonald is asking people to submit reports of what they did see — or even if they didn’t see an aurora at all in their region — to to help with science research.

And while the sun’s stormy activity will continue, the region where most of the activity was coming from is now facing away from Earth, so we shouldn’t experience more auroras than usual here. However, scientists are interested to see the view from Mars, which is currently located ahead of Earth and so will get a continuing view of the solar activity for another day.

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