The University of Southampton

Explore the Northern Lights with Aurora Zoo

Published: 28 April 2020
Aurora over river Kitinen, Finland

Southampton space physicists are appealing for thousands of members of the public to help them discover more about the phenomenon of the Northern Lights Aurora Borealis.

Aurora are formed when charged particles from space collide with gas particles in the Earth's atmosphere producing a beautiful natural display with a rich variety of shapes and movements on many different scales.

Scientists in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton are keen to understand more about this natural phenomenon and have developed a citizen science project Aurora Zoo that invites the public to find and classify the Aurora Borealis.

Participants will be able to help the research team classify thousands of images of the Northern Lights to make discoveries of new types of aurora and explore the processes of the upper atmosphere. The pictures have been taken by the Auroral Structure and Kinetics (ASK) camera system located on Svalbard in the high Arctic, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The research team returned there earlier this year to further their observations into the Northern Lights and to calibrate and upgrade the instrumentation. They documented their expedition in a daily blog.

Project leader Dr Daniel Whiter said: "There's still so much we don't understand about small-scale structure in the aurora. With the help of the public, we can identify the aurora and build a database of the different structures and movements present at different times. Using other sensory data recorded during those times, it will be possible for the team to get a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the creation of these structures.

"Strong electric fields and currents in the upper atmosphere are associated with the aurora, and these heat the atmosphere much like a current heats a resistor. As the atmosphere is heated, chemical reaction rates vary, and so the composition and dynamics of the atmosphere change in ways which need to be included in atmospheric, meteorological and climate models.

"We're also investigating the interaction between the Sun's and Earth's magnetic fields, which will help us learn how space weather might affect spacecraft and space technology, and studying waves and processes in plasma, which has applications in areas such as fusion reactors and spacecraft propulsion systems."

Aurora Zoo contributors, need no prior knowledge of physics and astronomy and a tutorial and field guide are available to help them classify auroral features. Images are processed several times and compared when they are compiled for researchers.

To find out more or to become involved in classifying the Northern Lights images click here.

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