By Sean McCloat
Hello, Aurorasaurus enthusiasts! Sean McCloat here. I am interning for the summer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I will be working on the Aurorasaurus project with Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald and Dr. Nathan Case, as well as the many others who contribute to the project and make it what it is.
I am currently pursuing my masters degree in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, focusing on the planetary sciences and astrobiology. I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from State University of New York at Geneseo (with minors in Biology and Environmental Studies) so I have a strong background in the sciences as well as the humanities.
My focus area at University of North Dakota does not involve heliophysics extensively, and despite having been able to see the aurora on several occasions in Grand Forks, North Dakota (particularly the St. Patrick’s Day storm), I admit my expertise in the field did not extend beyond the general understanding that there are sunspots and there are sunspot cycles.
Only three out of my ten weeks have gone by, and I’ve already learned so much! From arriving in Maryland and slowly mastering the public transportation system to jumping right into what has properly been called “Space Weather Boot Camp,” my experience so far has been intense, exciting and extremely informative – not unlike the space weather that comes to us and generates the aurora.
Space Weather Boot Camp, which took place at NASA Goddard, is the first of many building blocks to help orient me to the heliophysics and space weather world. The camp is two weeks of learning the more nuanced version of why the Sun does what it does and getting hands-on experience with the models and tools that real space weather forecasters are using at NASA and NOAA. This more nuanced version allowed me to expand my vocabulary beyond “sunspots” to include all the jargon the forecasters use, too. I learned terms like SEPs (solar energetic particles), CMEs (coronal mass ejections) CIRs (corotating interaction region), HSS (high speed stream), the IMF (interplanetary magnetic field), KP indices, prominences, flares, filaments, magnetic reconnections and magnetograms. All these terms and acronyms are just a small slice of the vernacular of heliophysics. One of the jobs of the Aurorasaurus team is to distill this jargon to help the science and citizen science community understand the mechanics behind the Northern Lights.
But I learned more than the jargon. The boot camp offered me an up-close and personal look at the Sun and how scientists on the ground and around the world monitor, track and (attempt to) predict what our favorite star will spit out at us next. Aside from the importance that monitoring space weather has and will have as we continue our triumphant and exploratory marches throughout the solar system, the biggest takeaway was that there is still quite a bit that we are “in the dark” about regarding solar activity. At the start of the two weeks, I had the general understanding that the Sun acts kind of like a much bigger, hotter and more magnetic lava lamp that occasionally flashes and erupts. By the end of the two weeks, my understanding was pretty much the same, except now I can describe what is happening in the Sun with all the official jargon used by scientists. My understanding had changed slightly too, regarding the lava lamp analogy. The Sun is not like one bigger, faster, hotter lava lamp – the Sun is closer to billions of big, spinning, interconnected lava lamps, that we puny humans are getting ever so slightly better at anticipating.
Aside from the technical learning, I’ve also been surprised to learn how global the field of heliophysics and space weather is, not just in its subject matter, but in the community at large. As space weather impacts the Earth and is a physically global phenomenon, so too must the community that studies it – and in our case, enjoy it – continue to expand and become global. As I join the Aurorasaurus team this summer, I am pleased to join the community, to have the privilege to be able to contribute to the field, and to help more people to see that most beautiful evidence of space weather – the Aurora Borealis.
I invite any and all of your questions about the aurora, heliophysics, NASA, philosophy or soccer, which I will track down the answer to as continue to soak in the knowledge here at Goddard. Your questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or posted as a comment to this blog post!
Sean McCloat interned with Aurorasaurus in the summer of 2015 while pursuing his masters degree in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota with a focus on the planetary sciences and astrobiology. He helped analyze the project’s data, contributed to scientific papers, presentations, and blog posts, and became good friends with Rory, the Aurorasaurus plush doll mascot.