Sunspots and Solar Storms the Subject of Citizen Science Project Launched at Trinity

Posted on: 27 February 2014

‘Sunspots’ and ‘solar storms’ are the feature of an ambitious project being launched by astrophysicists at Trinity College Dublin today. Members of the public are being invited to contribute to the project, in which they will work as part of a large team to try to better understand sunspot and solar storm phenomena and their impacts on Earth.

From time to time, the Sun throws out huge solar storms in the direction of planet Earth. These solar storms represent sudden releases of huge amounts of energy. When these storms hit our planet, typically one to two days after they appear in the Sun, they can cause spectacular displays of the Northern Lights. Sometimes, however, the effects can be more serious. For example, they can knock out power grids, interrupt GPS and radio communications, and damage satellites.
Sunspots appear in the Sun due to the actions of magnetic forces. They appear as dark spots at the locations where strong bundles of magnetic fields cross the surface of the Sun from its interior, or vice versa. Sunspots appear as dark spots because they are cooler than their surroundings, as the strong magnetic fields stop boiling gas from warming them.
Now, a team of scientists from Trinity and Zooniverse have developed the website that enables members of the public to engage in the quest to better understand sunspots and the ways that they produce solar storms.
Associate Professor of Astrophysics at Trinity, Peter Gallagher, said: “Even the most advanced computer software has not been able to accurately work out how explosive a particular sunspot is, which is why we need your help. But you’d be right to ask, why can’t scientists do the classifications themselves? The answer is that there is just far too much data!”
Research Fellow at Trinity, Dr Paul Higgins, who is the lead scientist behind the project, added: “Sunspotter volunteers will be the ones to thank for putting in the hard work and improving our ability to classify sunspots and predict solar storms.” has been developed by Zooniverse, home of the largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects. The organization grew from the original Galaxy Zoo project and now hosts dozens of projects that allow members of the public – ‘citizen scientists’ – to participate in real research. As of February 2014, the Zooniverse community consisted of more than 1 million volunteers.
“The website gives members of the public the power to contribute to cutting-edge scientific research. This will help scientists better understand explosions on the Sun and how they affect us here on Earth,” added Dr Higgins.
Why not see sunspots for yourself and join the research community contributing to this project by visiting You will be asked to rank different images of sunspots in terms of their complexity, which is based on their size, shape, and combination of colour. This will help astrophysicists predict the ways in which Earth will be affected by future magnetic changes on the Sun.


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Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science, Trinity College Dublin at or Tel: +353 1 896 4685