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Crowdsourced Aurora Sightings Map Solar Storms

It's notoriously hard to figure out where auroras occur at any given time -- now scientists have turned to the public for help.

When a solar storm rattles our planet's magnetic field, beautiful auroras - also known as the northern or southern lights - dazzle the world. An aurora occurs when energetic particles from the sun rain through the upper atmosphere, causing the gas up high to glow. But it's notoriously hard to figure out where auroras are in real time.

PHOTOS: Epic Aurora Photos From the Space Station

"Generally space is so huge (93 million miles from Earth to the Sun) and we only have a few widely spaced satellite systems that can constrain the models that make space weather and aurora predictions," Liz MacDonald, a space weather scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

"This leads to high uncertainties and aurora predictions that are pretty coarse. Also the aurora can grow non-linearly and the operational aurora models are not able to model that very complex physics yet. Lastly, the local Earth weather matters a lot to the public since you need clear skies to view aurora."

MacDonald's solution is to ask citizen scientists to pitch in with their observations. Called Aurorasaurus, it asks people to send in their real-time observations to the website. Twitter comments on auroras are also gathered.

NEWS: Sun Storm Supercharges Northern Lights

A screenshot of Aurorasaurus, showing an aurora storm on March 6. Green, yellow and red shows where the oval of the aurora was estimated. Green plus signs record positive sightings, while blue Twitter icons mark verified tweets. | Aurorasaurus

The observations are scientifically valuable. A recent study published in the Space Weather journal shows that the citizen scientists often spot auroras further south than what the models would predict. This correlates with observations of a Saint Patrick's Day storm in 2015 that also formed the basis of a study in Astronomy and Geophysics.

PHOTOS: Solar Storm Leads to Stunning Aurora Displays

"In aggregate, all of the citizen science observation can ‘ground truth' the aurora models and possibly improve their accuracy," MacDonald said, characterizing the Space Weather paper as a first step.

"Also, citizen scientists may be able to capture images of rare dynamic aurora that are still not well understood or characterized, and these observations can be valuable in conjunction with the rest of our scientific data."

The work is supported by the National Science Foundation and includes numerous researchers and supporters. The team is also recruiting for more volunteer helpers here.

An aurora spotted from the International Space Station, over the midwest of the United States.

When you live in the extreme north or south regions of Earth, there is a special astronomical phenomenon to enjoy besides an extra-long winter. That's auroras (or aurorae), sometimes called the northern or southern lights. This happens when charged particles from the sun interact with Earth's magnetic field lines, and "excite" molecules high in the atmosphere. Luckily for future explorers of the solar system, they will have similar light shows to enjoy on other planets and moons. Here's a brief overview of some of the aurora research going on around our planetary neighborhood.

(We should note that auroras or associated magnetic activity for them are discussed as possibilities in some locations,

such as Venus

, but this will focused on confirmed observations.)

PHOTOS: Epic Aurora Photos From the Space Station

Because Mars doesn't have a global magnetic field like Earth, we don't expect to see auroras that often. But the Red Planet


happen to have "residual magnetism" in its crust, which is just enough to create the light show, according to the European Space Agency. During about 10 years of observations reported earlier this month, a handful of auroras were detected near where open and closed magnetic field lines intersect. Auroras, which shine on Mars in the ultraviolet, were also detected for five days before Dec. 25, 2014 by NASA's MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) spacecraft. In this case, the auroras seem to have been sparked by an outburst on the sun with energetic particles deep enough to penetrate into the atmosphere of the planet, further down than what you would see on Earth.

PHOTOS: Solar Storm Leads to Stunning Aurora Displays

A decade after NASA's Galileo mission, which ended in 2003, scientists are keen to further research the mysteries of Jupiter's magnetic field. Luckily, NASA's Juno spacecraft is on its way there, scheduled to arrive in 2016. Among its instruments is an ultraviolet spectrometer that will give a detailed look at auroras on the planet. There should be a nice light show if past research is any indication. An amazing picture (above) from the Hubble Space Telescope shows auroras dancing around Jupiter's north pole,

built on emissions from its largest moons

-- Io (left), Ganymede (center) and Europa (right). The emissions happen as the moons create electric current that interacts with Jupiter's magnetic field. Some of Jupiter's moons also have aurora-like features. Galileo spotted collisions between charged particles and Io's atmosphere that created emissions similar to aurora. Auroral features on Europa happen because Jupiter has such a strong magnetic field; these are just visible by Hubble. And we can't forget years of observations on Ganymede, which not only has a magnetic field, but also a stable location

where auroras are located


PHOTO: Sun Storm Supercharges Northern Lights

Saturn has been under a long-time watch from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which arrived there in 2004. And what a view we've had. Last year, Cassini and Hubble teamed up to provide a 360-degree view of auroras on the planet, which you can view above (

and in this video

). "The result is a kind of step-by-step choreography detailing how the auroras move, showing the complexity of these auroras and how scientists can connect an outburst from the sun and its effect on the magnetic environment at Saturn,"

NASA wrote at the time

. A couple of the major findings: It appears there is a strong link between solar activity, specifically the amount of charged particles making its way into Saturn's magnetic environment. Storms are likely also sustained as magnetic field lines forge connections between each other, which are linked to movements of the moons Enceladus and Mimas.

PHOTOS: Spectacular Displays of Dancing Aurora

The Voyager 2 spacecraft captured some information about auroras on Uranus when it zoomed by in 1986, but little is known to this day about the planet's magnetosphere. It is so far away, and was only visited by the one spacecraft very briefly, so it is difficult to get much information about auroras and other signs of magnetic activity. A brief exception to that came in 2011, when auroras shone so brightly on the planet that they were captured by Hubble. "The ultraviolet images were taken at the time of heightened solar activity in November 2011 that successively buffeted the Earth, Jupiter, and Uranus with a gusher of charged particles from the Sun,"

NASA wrote at the time

. "Because Uranus' magnetic field is inclined 59 degrees to its spin axis, the auroral spots appear far from the planet's north and south poles."

PHOTOS: Stunning Auroras Seen Over Swedish Mountains

Neptune is another planet that we know little about. It's far away from Earth and telescope time is precious, so we only have relative glimpses here and there into the gas giant's science. Our best close-up look came from a single spacecraft flyby in 1989, when Voyager 2 briefly zoomed by the cool, blue planet. Voyager 2 found a much different magnetic field on Neptune than on Earth. "Because of Neptune's complex magnetic field, the auroras are extremely complicated processes that occur over wide regions of the planet, not just near the planet's magnetic poles,"

NASA wrote in a summary page about the planet

. "The auroral power on Neptune is weak, estimated at about 50 million watts, compared to 100 billion watts on Earth."