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Twitter to help map Northern Lights

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Washington: Researchers, including those from NASA, are exploring how Twitter can be used to develop a model that predicts when and where the aurora borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, will be visible. “What makes our project different is that not only do we want to help people see the aurora, we want to better science,” said Andrea Tapia, an associate professor at the Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Tapia along with Nathan Case and Elizabeth MacDonald from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is working on the Aurorasaurus project. Run by the New Mexico Consortium based at NASA Goddard located just outside of Washington DC, the Aurorasaurus project is a blend of space weather, citizen and computer science.

The Aurorasaurus website includes a real-time map tracking Earth observations of the auroras via numerous sources, including social media. Using both satellite data and real time reporting through Twitter web and mobile app submissions, Aurorasaurus aims to develop a “now cast” model of when and where the aurora will be visible.


In a new study, Case, Tapia, and MacDonald, along with Nicolas Lalone, a doctoral candidate at the College of IST, investigated the use of Twitter as a measure of auroral activity for the first time.

The researchers’ study collates tweets and investigates the possibility of Twitter for both real-time analysis and mapping of an aurora, as has been done with other large-scale events such as natural disasters. The tweets used in the study were collected by the Aurorasaurus citizen science project from September 2012 to April 2013.

Overall, the results suggest that Twitter can provide both specific details about an individual aurora and accurate real-time indication of when and where an aurora is visible. “The research is significant because it allows us to use Twitter as a data source for aurora sighting and to find out whether it is useful in real time,” Case said. Currently, Tapia said, “There’s really no good way to track the aurora at all.”

Aurora sightings are predicted based on measurements from the NASA Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite on the strength of the solar wind as it heads toward Earth. But the satellite sits less than a million miles from Earth, so scientists get very little warning of activity, usually no more than an hour.

While Twitter can be an effective tool for predicting aurora sightings, Tapia and Case said, it also has its limitations. For example, soft sensors from multiple countries might report sightings of the same auroral event. Additionally, since an aurora can occur over a wide range of longitudes and time zones, the same auroral display may only become visible in certain regions hours after being visible in others.