Tag Archive | sunspotter

Sunspotter in the Classroom

There has never been a better time to help scientists understand the mysteries of the sun. Sunspotter has been steadily making progress classifying images of sunspots for more than a year, and with this week being the first “Sunspotter Citizen Science Challenge”, it is an ideal opportunity to make yourself acquainted with (or revisit) www.sunspotter.org. While Sunspotter offers international appeal, giving science enthusiasts across the globe a chance to help us understand solar activity, in Ireland it has gained particular significance. Sunspotter is the first Irish-led Zooniverse project and is a project that helps us strive towards some of the national and international educational goals we have set ourselves as a country. The Irish education system is in a state of transition and one of the most exciting developments is the addition of a new science curriculum that will be offered to Irish students at Junior Cycle level (12-15 year olds). Introducing any new curriculum presents challenges, but one of the most exciting initiatives is the addition of an “Earth and Space” strand. This means that for the first time, Irish students will be learning about the formation of the Universe, the stars and the planets on a formal syllabus at junior level. On a European scale, one of the objectives of the European Commission is to help strive for a society that is more engaged in research, governance and accountability. Citizen science is seen as a method of encouraging young Europeans to become involved in science and to form evidence-based opinions on efficient and transparent uses of public and private science and research funding. All of this has led to Sunspotter being the perfect citizen science project to act as the basis of an educational initiative for Irish schools.

In order for Sunspotter to be utilised as a resource in Irish classrooms it required the support and contributions of a number of forward-thinking organisations. Firstly, it was piloted in Science Gallery Dublin (dublin.sciencegallery.com). This pilot allowed us to see if Sunspotter would work as a classroom activity. It was trialled with pens and paper and the students were tasked with identifying the sunspots in order of complexity (See Figure 1). This was a crude pre-digital version of Sunspotter but it still encapsulated the fundamentals of the project and showed the team that it could work as a larger educational initiative. Secondly, funding was awarded from Science Foundation Ireland (www.sfi.ie) so that Sunspotter could be brought to schools around Ireland. Members of the Sunspotter team designed the content and learning outcomes of the Sunspotter classroom workshops while PhD students in the Astrophysics Research Group at Trinity College (www.physics.tcd.ie/Astrophysics) were responsible for visiting schools around the country and delivering the workshops. Later in the project, these workshops will be made available as classroom resources at: http://www.zooteach.org. As well as directly visiting schools, the Sunspotter team brought workshops to a number of science festivals in Ireland, including World Space Week and the Midlands Science Festival (See Figure 2).

Sunspotter was first piloted in Science Gallery Dublin. This was the first look at the project that would eventually live at http://www.Sunspotter.org.

Figure 1: Sunspotter was first piloted in Science Gallery Dublin. This was the first look at the project that would eventually live at http://www.Sunspotter.org.

Figure 2: Sunspotter workshops took place at Science Festivals like World Space Week, where students not only had the chance to learn how to make comets (left image) they also took part in citizen science workshops (using iPads provided by the School of Physics - middle and right image) where they encountered Sunspotter and several other Zooniverse projects.

Figure 2: Sunspotter workshops took place at Science Festivals like World Space Week, where students not only had the chance to learn how to make comets (left image) they also took part in citizen science workshops (using iPads provided by the School of Physics – middle and right image) where they encountered Sunspotter and several other Zooniverse projects.

Over the course of the year Sunspotter workshops have taken place at schools across Ireland. Almost 20 different locations around the country have been visited. For each school visit, members of the Sunspotter team bring a set of iPads so that the students get a chance to participate in Sunspotter and other Zooniverse projects. They also learn about the merits of citizen science and how their contributions are crucial to eventually solving the mystery of sunspots and their role in warning us about eruptions on the surface of the Sun. More than 500 students have taken part in these workshops so far. Before and after each of the workshops the students fill out a short questionnaire to help evaluate the project, the results of which will be published in a science education journal. It is already obvious that visiting the schools and engaging students with a project like Sunspotter is a worthwhile endeavour. 93% of the students have not heard of Zooniverse before the workshops and 88% have never heard of “citizen science”. There have also been obstacles for the project to overcome. Travelling to workshops across Ireland in rural locations with a suitcase full of iPads is not a straightforward process. Subsequently finding out that the school and surrounding areas do not have as much Internet access as was perhaps thought can also be a challenge to members of the Sunspotter team. Funding for this work is also limited and hopefully more sources will be found over the coming months. Regardless of these barriers, Sunspotter will find its way into more Irish classrooms one way or another. The Sunspotter team will continue to make sure that as many young students as possible have a chance to engage in a citizen science project (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: Sunspotter workshops in the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin (left image). Astrophysicists Dr Pietro Zucca and Áine Flood visiting classrooms in Co. Westmeath as part of the midlands Science Festival (left image)

Figure 3: Sunspotter workshops in the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin (left image). Astrophysicists Dr Pietro Zucca and Áine Flood visiting classrooms in Co. Westmeath as part of the midlands Science Festival (right image).

While Sunspotter remains a Zooniverse project, its potential as an educational resource will continue to be explored. Overtime, we hope that the educational opportunities of Sunspotter will embrace the citizen science community as much as the science objectives of the larger project. This week is all about the “Sunspotter Citizen Science Challenge” and as well as helping us classify sunspots and spread the word about Sunspotter, feel free to get in touch with us and talk about your experiences using Sunspotter in the classroom or to share your ideas about how Sunspotter could be used as an educational resource in future. You can get in touch with the team on Twitter (we are @sunspotter_org). Thanks for helping us make Sunspotter a project that we can all be proud of and we look forward to more exciting developments in the future.

Dr Joseph Roche is an Astrophysicist and Assistant Professor in Science Education at Trinity College Dublin. Twitter: @joeboating

Basics of a Solar Flare Forecast

In a previous post I described the concept of space weather. Whilst monitoring current conditions around Earth, space weather forecasters will produce forecasts of the likelihood of solar eruptions occurring over the next few days. Solar flare forecasts are just one part of these daily guidance documents. To create a forecast, a few simple guidelines are generally followed, which I will outline in this post.

1. Setting the scene.

For any forecast, be it Earth weather or space weather, the forecaster needs to begin by describing what is happening now. They start by examining solar imagery, such as the MDI magnetograms used in Sunspotter. They will identify any features in these magnetograms which are already having, or are likely to have, an impact on space weather conditions in the coming days. See Figure 1 for an example of identifying active regions using magnetograms. In this particular example, regions have been numbered according to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre sunspot numbering scheme – when a new region emerges onto the solar disk it is given a number in order. The Solar Monitor Active Region Tracker method outlined in a previous post is another way to identify regions of interest, which automatically produced the data sets you see in Sunspotter.

SDO/HMI magnetogram from 2015 August 22, source: solarmonitor.org

Figure 1: SDO/HMI magnetogram from 2015 August 22. NOAA active region 12403 might be of particular interest to a forecaster, with a ‘beta-gamma-delta’ classification. Figure source: solarmonitor.org

The forecaster will examine the history of these identified regions of interest– if something significant has happened recently this might get described in the guidance document, perhaps with images to help the viewer understand what happened and why.

2. What’s likely to happen (the forecast)?

Once the current situation has been described, it is time to move on to what is likely to happen over the period of the forecast. This can be separated into two parts:

2.1 The next 24 hours.

The forecaster will describe in the guidance document how any identified regions are likely to move or develop in the immediate future. For example is a sunspot region growing? Is it complex? Is it likely to produce flares? This is where your classifications in Sunspotter will help define how complex a region is! Once forecasters have decided on a classification, they will calculate the probability of a flare occurring in this region over the next 24 hours.

There are many ways to do this, including Bayesian methods (e.g., Wheatland et al), machine learning (e.g, Qahwaji et al), discriminant analysis (e.g., Barnes et al), and many more. A relatively simple statistical method is often used in operational flare forecasting, which starts with a large database of flare information from previous solar cycles. This database shows how many particular classes of flares each classification of active region produced in that time period. From this an average flare rate can be calculated, and using Poisson statistics a percentage probability of flare occurrence for the next 24 hours will be obtained for each region. See Bloomfield et al, 2012 for a more in-depth description of this method. A little human intervention is also involved here – if a forecaster thinks the value is too small or too big they can change it based on their experience! The percentages for each region can then be added to obtain the probability of a flare occurring across the entire solar disk over the next 24 hours.

2.2 The rest of the forecast period.

The forecaster will then take a briefer look at the whole sun over the next few days. If the next 24 hours look fairly quiet, but something interesting is expected to return to the solar disk in a couple of days time, then the probability of a flare occurring might be increased later on in the forecast period. Similarly if a particularly complex region is due to leave the disk in a few days, the probability might be decreased for that day. An example of a typical flare forecast is shown in Figure 2.

Example of a typical flare forecast for the next four days. Percentage probabilities of M- and X- class flares are included, as well as a description of current conditions.

Figure 2: Example of a solar flare forecast for the next four days. Percentage probabilities are calculated for two ‘levels’ that are related to M- and X- class flares. These are the two largest classes of solar flare, the ones most likely to produce radio blackouts. The forecast also mentions whether any M- or X- class flares occurred over the previous day, and a general description of current conditions. Figure source: Met Office (Crown Copyright)


3. Potential Earth impacts.

Once the forecaster has described what we expect to happen on the Sun, next it’s time to explain how this may affect life on (or in the vicinity of) Earth. For example can we expect radio blackouts? Do astronauts onboard the International Space Station need to postpone any space walks? This will be summarised as part of more general guidance documents, which include forecasts of other space weather phenomena such as coronal mass ejections.


These are the typical steps taken to create a flare forecast. However every day is different, and forecasters can diverge from this method if necessary! Check out current space weather conditions on, e.g., the SWPC and Met Office webpages.


Thanks to Senior Operational Meteorologist, Mark Sidaway, for his guidance when creating this blog post. All statements in this post are my own and not those of the Met Office.


¿Qué significa Sunspotter?

Sunspotter es el nuevo proyecto de ciencia ciudadana que nos ofrece zooniverse.  Es el primer proyecto de dicha plataforma que está completamente disponible en español, esto incluye además de la página web, un grupo de científicos de habla hispana que responderán las dudas de los voluntarios y mantendrán este blog con las últimos novedades.

Pero… ¿qué significa Sunspotter?

Para entender el término Sunspotter tenemos que jugar un poquito con el inglés. Muchos de ustedes sabrán que sun significa sol y spot mancha.  De ahí que a las manchas solares se les conozcan como sunspots. Pero en inglés, a veces un sustantivo puede ser también un verbo, y así sucede con to spot que entre otras cosas significa localizar o divisar.  Además, así como to teach es enseñar, y teacher es el que enseña (profesor), spotter es el que realiza la acción de divisar, esto es, un observador. Con esto, conseguimos entender un poco el juego de palabras que deriva del nombre de este proyecto.  Por un lado vamos a clasificar manchas solares, pero por otro, nos beneficiamos de los ojos de los voluntarios que son buenos observadores de la complejidad del sol.

Como ya expliqué en el anterior artículo (donde aún no habíamos logrado la perla de nombre que tenemos ahora), el fin último de este proyecto es ser capaz de predecir cuando las fulguraciones solares van a ocurrir. Sin embargo esta es una empresa para nada sencilla con los datos que tenemos hasta el momento, y es aquí donde Sunspotter intenta incorporar una nueva perspectiva al problema. Durante muchos años los que han trabajado observando el sol y clasificando las manchas solares saben que si una mancha solar es grande, “mala” y “fea” va a producir una fulguración solar. Pero, ¿cómo sabemos si una mancha solar es grande, mala y fea? El tamaño es fácil de obtener mediante un algoritmo sencillo, no así el que sea “mala” y “fea”. ¡Es ahí donde te necesitamos!  Hemos encontrado que la complejidad es un parámetro que nos indica bastante bien cuando un grupo de manchas solares tiene una pinta “mala” y “fea”. Y creemos que con la simple tarea de comparar cuál es el grupo de manchas solares más complejo de entre dos nos da la información suficiente para clasificar todas las manchas solares en esta nueva escala.

No esperes más, ¡únete al resto de voluntarios, y ayúdanos a clasificar las manchas solares!  Entre más seamos mejor será nuestra clasificación.  Tampoco te olvides de preguntarnos en el foro cualquier duda y discutir con el resto de voluntarios tus manchas solares favoritas. ¡Te esperamos!