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Crowd-sourced analysis used for solar storm predictions

Observations that a solar storm could hit Earth affecting communications, GPS systems and even power grids came from a crowd-sourced analysis, according to an announcement on the Royal Observatory Greenwich Blog on Friday.The project, codenamed Solar Stormwatch, is a joint initiative between the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the STFC Rutherford Appleton Labaratory, Zooniverse and Citizen Science Alliance which allows anyone to help the research by analysing and noting points of solar eruptions.

Observations that a solar storm could hit Earth affecting communications, GPS systems and even power grids came from a crowd-sourced analysis, according to an announcement on the Royal Observatory Greenwich Blog on Friday.

The project, codenamed Solar Stormwatch, is a joint initiative between the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the STFC Rutherford Appleton Labaratory, Zooniverse and Citizen Science Alliance which allows anyone to help the research by analysing and noting points of solar eruptions.

Much of the predictive work is based on readings from the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, known as STEREO, which uses data from two space observatories — one ahead of the Earth in orbit, and one trailing behind — to study the structure of solar storms.

"The main point is the fact that so many public observers have used the Stereo data to identify a so-called coronal mass ejection — a solar-ejected cloud, which can often carry a billion tonnes of hot plasma — which might be heading our way. If enough individual predictions support the view that such an event is Earth-directed, an alert is issued," Richard Harrison, principal investigator of Stereo at the space science and technology department of the STFC told ZDNet UK on Monday.

Despite the advantages offered by crowdsourcing, Harrison says that it is still "early days" in terms of people learning how to use the data, adding "but they are pretty impressive when picking out these events and in pure numbers, when many people are shouting the same message, whether amateur or professional - the chances are that something is on its way".

According to researchers, solar storms could have many adverse effects on Earth, such as communications disruption, interference to GPS technology and illness for astronauts based on the International Space Station. It could even lead to disruption to power grids or loss of space craft, Harrison said.

According to the prediction — the first of its kind to use public analysis for real-time predictions — the storm was due to hit Earth on Monday at 07:32GMT.

As a major provider of national communication services many business and residential customers rely on BT services that could potentially be affected by this or future solar events.

"BT continues to make sure that the appropriate levels of resilience are built into our network infrastructure and that any interdependencies with other national networks are minimised," a BT spokesman told ZDNet UK on Monday. "We are helping the UK government to quantify the risks and subsequent mitigations in dealing with solar flare phenomena, and we will continue monitoring the work being done to gauge potential impacts. Based on current research, we believe the risk of coronal mass ejections having a serious impact on BT's national communication infrastructure to be low," he added.