Your solar system needs YOU!

Do you fancy helping scientists save the planet, or at least its communications and power systems, from the comfort of your own computer? A new project helps you do just that, even if you don’t have any specialist knowledge.

Solar Stormwatch is an appeal by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London for public volunteers to look through images from satellites orbiting the Sun to spot solar storms. Those are gigantic releases of material from the Sun’s magnetic field which can disrupt communications satellites. In some cases they can even damage cellphone networks or power lines.

It might seem strange to imagine, but even “unskilled” humans can do a better job of analyzing the images than a computer. That’s because the eye and brain are more able to make the type of subjective decisions needed to recognize the patterns which could indicate storm activity.

Bringing in the public to help solves two problems. Firstly, it simply increases the number of people looking at images and shares the workload beyond the scientists working on the project full-time. But more importantly it allows images to be viewed by multiple people from different backgrounds and with different knowledge. The organizers believe this will allow them to benefit from the wisdom of crowds theory, by which different elements of each person’s knowledge and judgment can be combined to produce a more accurate assessment.

Volunteers will be asked to spend a few minutes on a training exercise to learn what they are looking for in the images. Once they’ve successfully completed this, they can help out as and when they have time, with no commitments.

The project follows on from a similar scheme named Galaxy Zoo, which aims to use volunteers to help classify galaxies. That’s already thrown up some discoveries of overall patterns, such as that two galaxies in proximity are much more likely to spin in the same direction than any two randomly selected galaxies. The results also suggest around one-third of red-colored galaxies are spirals, contradicting previous theories that all red galaxies were elliptical.

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