NMC/LANL Researcher Receives NSF Award

Photo credit: Astronomy North, Yellowknife, Canada


  • NMC/LANL researcher engages social media to forecast and track space weather.

The New Mexico Consortium (NMC) has announced that the aurora monitoring project, Aurorasaurus, has been awarded support by the Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) program. Aurorasaurus.org provides a real-time Google map of auroral visibility from multiple sources: user contributions, filtered social media Tweets, weather, and auroral oval predictions from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center space-based data.

Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, an NMC Affiliate Research Scientist and LANL Staff Scientist, leads this citizen science research project in collaboration with Drs. Michelle Hall and Andrea Tapia of Science Education Solutions and Pennsylvania State University, respectively.

According to Dr. MacDonald, accurately predicting space weather is a space physics top goal. On Oct. 24, 2011, a geomagnetic storm raged across Europe and the US. Arrival forecasts were off by eight hours, predicted a much weaker storm, and did not anticipate the visible red emissions observed.

The inaccuracy of this forecast is fairly typical today, as space weather observations are simply not plentiful enough to accurately forecast between the Sun and Earth. Yet, impacts on major infrastructure from satellites to power systems may exceed $1 billion. As far south as Alabama, thousands of social media Tweets documented the real time visible aurora, a first at large scale, suggesting a new way to significantly improve aurora forecasting, while engaging the public in advancing space weather science. 

The current maximum solar cycle is the first with social media and the opportunity exists for using volunteered geographic information from distributed human observers to provide a way for the public to experience the extremes of space weather. Aurorasaurus.org will be among the very first tools to predict the extent of rare scientific events in real-time, as they unfold, with high spatial and temporal resolution.

The National Science Foundation’s INSPIRE program is the new major sponsor of this project which is executed in partnership with the New Mexico Consortium, the Pennsylvania State University, and Science Education Solutions. The INSPIRE program is designed for interdisciplinary, highly innovative new ideas. Startup funding was provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory’s internal R&D funding as well as the NASA Van Allen Probes Educational and Public Outreach program. It is intended as an experimental citizen science, space science, and computer science platform. The site is open source and they are looking for volunteers of all kinds to be involved.

Please visit aurorasaurus.org, for more information and join the Facebook page facebook.com/aurorasaurus.org for social media interactions. The new award will enable many new features including a mobile application, a geographic notification of verified aurora sightings and a nowcast product. Your help is appreciated in widely broadcasting this new site and using it when auroral activity is forecast. Your observations will help others experience this rare and beautiful phenomena.

About the New Mexico Consortium

The New Mexico Consortium is a non-profit research and educational institution formed by the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The New Mexico Consortium is an effective model for facilitating collaborations between LANL, universities, and industry. 

The NMC is currently one of the largest technology-based businesses in Los Alamos County and employs more than 100 people. The NMC supports a university-type research environment and pursues research in plant biology, advanced computing, biomedical engineering and modeling and analysis. To learn more about the NMC see our webpage at www.newmexicoconsortium.org.  


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