Week 2: Bootcamp, and other things

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Thursday, June 8, 2017


Kristine Romich

Back when I lived in Chicago, I volunteered at the Adler Planetarium as a floor programs facilitator.  Every other weekend, I led interactive science demonstrations for a general audience — usually families with kids.  I had a chance to relive the experience during last Friday’s Astronomy Festival on the National Mall.  As promised, here are some photos from the evening: 


My roommate Lisa and I took turns explaining the chemical makeup of the evolving universe using jars of colored marbles (where each color represents a different element).  The Sun jar, filled primarily with “hydrogen” and “helium,” prompted discussions about nuclear fusion and the synthesis of heavier elements.  Not surprisingly, folks seem to like it when you tell them they’re made out of stars.

I’ve spent my workweek at “Space Weather Bootcamp,” an on-site series of lectures on various topics within heliophysics geared towards new interns and college students.  My mentor, Nicholeen Viall, recommended I attend to get a solid introduction to the science underlying our project.  While Bootcamp has limited the amount of time I’ve had to work on the project these past several days, it’s been a worthy investment.  The speakers — mainly resident researchers at Goddard — are experts in their field, and it’s an honor to be able to learn from them directly. 

“Space weather" refers to the dynamic conditions within the Earth-Sun system that have the potential to affect human activities.  Though the Sun may seem placid from afar, it continually spews streams of energetic particles into space, along with the occasional solar flare or coronal mass ejection.  These events — which arise from the Sun’s immense magnetic field — have been known to disrupt radio communications and the accuracy of GPS navigation.  On the bright side, space weather is also responsible for the dazzling auroral displays commonly seen near the poles.  These can dip down to lower latitudes during periods of strong geomagnetic activity.  In 1859, a particularly intense solar storm (since dubbed the Carrington Event) produced "northern lights" over Hawaii and the Caribbean!

If you’re interested in tracking the aurora yourself, check out Aurorasaurus.org.  It’s a citizen-science platform designed by Goddard’s Liz MacDonald, who spoke at today’s session.  You can process reports of aurora sightings in real time (and, optionally, receive notifications if there have been any in your area).  The ultimate goal of the effort is to enhance forecasting capabilities.

By now I’ve been at NASA long enough to fall into a morning routine.  The Goddard interns’ commute is the longest:  two Metro trains and a bus, and the bus only runs every 40 minutes.  I’m up at 5 every day to be out the door before 7.  I don’t mind, though — the trip gives me a chance to catch up on some reading.  If my early alarm bothers Lisa, she hasn’t said anything yet!

Until next time,

Kristine Romich