TCD scientists seek help rating sunspots and solar storms

Monday 16 June 2014 12.10
Scientists say understanding sunspots and solar flares is important
Scientists say understanding sunspots and solar flares is important

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin are seeking the help of the public in an effort to better understand sunspots and solar storms and their impact on Earth.

The international study will see citizen scientists rate the relative complexity of images of sunspots that will be posted on the sunspotter.org website.

Participants will have to make their decision based around the size, shape and arrangement of these magnetic blobs.

It is the next phase in the Sunspotter project, which has seen 1,600 volunteers rate 300,000 images since its launch last February.

Now the astrophysicists behind the project are releasing a new set of 250,000 images for participants in Ireland and around the world to work on.

Dr Paul Higgins, the lead scientist on the project, says computers cannot be used to classify the data because "complexity" is not easily quantifiable by machines. 

"Humans can easily compare two objects, like a skateboard and a lorry and decide, 'this one is more complex', but this is beyond current computer software," he said.

"However, the data we collect from Sunspotter volunteers may allow us to train a computer algorithm to measure sunspot complexity in the near future."

The overall goal of the project is to discover a physical connection between patterns of sunspot evolution, complexity, and eruptions.

Understanding sunspots and solar flares is important, because the solar eruptions not only cause beautiful phenomena such as the Aurora Borealis, but also disrupt GPS, damage satellites and endanger astronauts.