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Sun Series: You (Yes, You!) Can Help NASA Study the Sun

Season 7Episode 4Apr 2, 2024

How often do you think about your nearest star? Though it may not seem like it from here on Earth, our trusty Sun is a place of mystery. Take a good look at its influence on our planet – through the otherworldly experience of eclipse, maybe, or the aurora – and you might get "sucked" in... to a citizen science project, that is. Join NASA Sun scientists like Liz Macdonald and volunteers like Hanjie Tan to listen to crickets fooled by the false night of an eclipse, discover new colors in the aurora, and hunt for comets hiding in the plasma of our Sun’s atmosphere. And learn how you can get involved in NASA science while experiencing our nearest star firsthand. This is episode three of the Sun and Eclipse series from NASA’s Curious Universe, an official NASA podcast.

The cover art display for the NASA's Curious Universe podcast.

About NASA’s Curious Universe Podcast

Come get curious with NASA. As an official NASA podcast, Curious Universe brings you mind-blowing science and space adventures you won’t find anywhere else. Explore the cosmos alongside astronauts, scientists, engineers, and other top NASA experts who are achieving remarkable feats in science, space exploration, and aeronautics. Learn something new about the wild and wonderful universe we share. All you need to get started is a little curiosity.

NASA’s Curious Universe is an official NASA podcast hosted by Padi Boyd and Jacob Pinter

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Episode Description: 

How often do you think about your nearest star? Though it may not seem like it from here on Earth, our trusty Sun is a place of mystery. Take a good look at its influence on our planet – through the otherworldly experience of eclipse, maybe, or the aurora – and you might get sucked in… to a citizen science project, that is. Join NASA Sun scientists like Liz Macdonald and volunteers like Hanjie Tan to listen to crickets fooled by the false night of an eclipse, discover new colors in the aurora, and hunt for comets hiding in the plasma of our Sun’s atmosphere. And learn how you can get involved in NASA science while experiencing our nearest star firsthand.  This is episode three of the Sun and Eclipse series from NASA’s Curious Universe, an official NASA podcast.


[MUSIC: Marimba Mayhem by Harry T Croxford] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Hey space nerds, here’s another fun way that you can get involved with the total solar eclipse. So, our friends at Third Rock Radio are giving you the power to choose the eclipse soundtrack, with Solar Songs. Three days of music to get you in the mood for the eclipse. Each day has a different theme, and things kick off on April 5 with songs all about the Sun.  


JACOB: You can find more at Just look for the tab that says Solar Songs in the upper left. That’s where you can submit your request. And you can hear each day of Solar Songs from noon to 2 p.m. Central Time. All you have to do is pick the songs, and Third Rock will play them back in honor of the total solar eclipse on April 8. And hey, let them know Curious Universe sent you. 


[THEME MUSIC: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m your host for today, Jacob Pinter. And in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide.  


JACOB: You’re listening to the third episode of our Sun series. From here on Earth, our neighborhood star can seem steady and predictable. But when you look at the Sun close up, there is a lot going on.  


JACOB: So, in the Sun’s honor we’re taking a deep, five-part dive into the plasma. So far, we’ve covered how the Sun and Earth formed and influence each other and the surreal experience of a total solar eclipse. 


JACOB: For this episode, I’m joined again by our producer, Christian Elliott. Christian what do you have planned for us this time? 


PRODUCER CHRISTIAN ELLIOTT: Hey Jacob! Well to start, I want to tell you a little story. I recently talked to this guy, Chandresh Kedhambadi. He’s a chemical engineer, and the story starts with him moving to Canada from India for a job… one that involves long nights driving around, taking measurements of oil wells in the icy north. 


[MUSIC: Safe Landing by Catherine Hoang Khanh Nguyen] 


[SFX: Truck driving down a bumpy road] 



So, on one such night, we were driving. And obviously being February I think it was around minus 20 minus 25 that time in Calgary. 


CHRISTIAN: He was in this convoy, following another truck. Then, his colleague in the truck up ahead did something unexpected. 



So, my operator pulled the truck over. And he just stopped in the middle of the road, we were in a remote location in one of these backcountry roads… 


CHRISTIAN: First, he thought the other truck had hit a deer in the dark. 



And he came on the radio, and he asked me to get out of my truck and look skywards… And sure enough, I did get out and look at the sky. And once the truck lights turned off, it took a little bit of a while to register what I was actually looking at.  


[SFX: Two-way radio beeps on, radio chatter, truck door opens, footsteps in snow] 


CHRISTIAN: It was the northern lights! Chandresh had seen the aurora in documentaries growing up, but experiencing it firsthand was different… 



The night pretty much started with a bit of a diffuse glow. It’s kind of just a dim glow it sits there and doesn’t seem like it’s doing anything much. And then boom, right away, it just, lit up the entire sky. And we sat there and watched it for about 10, 15 minutes. 


CHRISTIAN: Once it was over, he drove home into the sunrise and tried to move on. But it felt like something had changed.  



It stayed with me for a couple of days. Like, even when I was logging that well, you would think about the shapes and why it would dance in a particular way. 


CHRISTIAN: He found himself imagining what Canada’s First Nations people would have thought, looking up at this same sky, hundreds and thousands of years ago. He started researching how the Sun causes the aurora, and going out every night, trying to see it again. He got into astrophotography, taking pictures of the night sky… 



You want a bigger and better show every time, right? It’s almost like a high end you want the next high. I’ve driven as far as three and a half hours almost towards the US border sometimes when you know that the data is good. Any night where you have to give up chasing the Aurora because you ran out of memory cards, and you ran out of batteries and spare batteries, I think is a great night. 


[MUSIC: Scientific Progress by Thomas Gallicani] 


CHRISTIAN: Experiencing the Sun firsthand changed Chandresh’s life. Now he spends every night he can out in fields and on frozen lakes, chasing the aurora and even contributing data to NASA research projects. And he’s not the only one. In this episode, I’m going to bring you three stories of people who took the Sun for granted for a long time, then were snapped out of it and fell off the deep end into Sun obsession. When you start really paying attention to the Sun, you just see the world differently.  


JACOB: OK, I’m excited! Where do we start?   


CHRISTIAN: So, we’ve talked a lot already about this big year for our Sun… with eclipses, really high solar activity and the Parker Solar Probe making its closest approach to the Sun. 


JACOB: Right, I think the official NASA name for it is the Heliophysics Big Year. 


CHRISTIAN: Well, I hadn’t really thought about this before, but you know where the term “big year” actually comes from? NASA didn’t come up with it out of nowhere. 



Do you want me to tell you the real story? [Laughs] We kind of borrowed an idea from the birding community, where people go out and have, they challenge themselves to have a big year where they see as many species of a bird as possible. And so we thought that we had an opportunity to have a heliophysics big year. 


CHRISTIAN: That’s Liz Macdonald, she’s a heliophysicist at NASA and she leads citizen science for heliophysics. 


JACOB: We’ve done stories about citizen science, that’s like where people volunteer to help with research right? 


CHRISTIAN: Yes, exactly. That concept is at the very core of this big year.  Here, Liz can explain it better than I can… 



Citizen science is a way in which ordinary people can contribute to the scientific process, and to various topics that NASA studies, from the Moon, to different planets, to the Aurora, to the eclipses that are happening this year. And people can make discoveries. 


CHRISTIAN: When they’re working on ambitious research projects, scientists pretty often run into one of two problems… either there’s just too much data for them to go through, or they just don’t have the time or resources to collect the data all over the world that they need to answer their questions. That’s where citizens, these volunteer scientists, come in. 



It’s really expensive to build satellites. And space is really large. So, we are kind of data starved, but people are everywhere. And people are always looking and finding unusual things in the data.  


CHRISTIAN: And as a bonus, volunteering as a citizen scientist often overlaps with people’s hobbies, like looking up at the night sky through a telescope or taking photos, or just going for walks in the woods. Wherever scientists look, they tend to find ordinary, curious people already collecting the data they need, like photographs of aurorae, for example. They just don’t know it yet! 



And one of the things I love the most about citizen science is the way that we really get to answer people’s questions, and they ask really good questions, including some things that scientists might have overlooked. 


CHRISTIAN: And there are so, so many really fascinating projects going on during this heliophysics big year. 


JACOB: Well, I’m excited to hear about them! So, Christian, you said you picked out three for me, right? So what is stop #1? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, how about I let Liz pick? 


[MUSIC: Cloud Voyage by Ella Ryan] 



There’s actually almost 20 projects that are part of the Helio Big Year. I just signed up for one of the projects earlier today, because I realized how easy it was to sign up. That was the Eclipse Soundscapes project, which is actually about tracking how animals respond during solar eclipses.  


JACOB: Ooh, soundscapes, OK, I mean, that sounds right up our alley. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah exactly! I was really excited to about it too. To learn more, I got in touch with the project’s leaders. 



Hello, my name is Dr. Henry Winter. Everybody calls me Trae. And I am the co-lead and chief scientist for the NASA-sponsored Eclipse soundscapes project.  


CHRISTIAN: The story starts a few years ago in a library in New York.  


[SFX: Door opens, library ambience] 


CHRISTIAN: Trae, a solar astrophysicist, was trying to describe an eclipse to someone who was blind, and he couldn’t. He realized he kept describing the way the light changed, the colors… that sort of thing. How do you describe a visual phenomenon to someone who’s never seen? He floundered for a few minutes. Then he remembered a story his friend had told him. 



They were standing out in the field in the middle of nowhere. And there was no sounds around. And then as soon as the moon completely covered the photosphere of the bright part of the sun. Day kind of turned into Twilight around them. All of a sudden, the field erupted in the sound of crickets. He said it was like somebody had flipped on the cricket switch, it was so sudden, so immediate… 


[SFX: Chirping crickets] 


CHRISTIAN: And that got him thinking… We always talk about seeing an eclipse, but an eclipse is really an experience right? 


JACOB: Yeah the way Kelly described this in episode two of this series really stuck with me. I mean she talked about the way the temperature shifts and the way the sounds change. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, it’s really a multisensory experience. So Trae started on this quest to make eclipses more accessible. He made an app that could guide blind and low-vision people through the 2017 eclipse in audio, and with tactile feedback.  


[SFX: Eclipse Soundscapes app beeps and whirs] 


CHRISTIAN: And then he thought, wait a minute, what about that cricket story? Was that really true? He decided to create a citizen science project to study how animals behave during eclipses… a multisensory, accessible project that anyone could contribute to. 



Little did I know that there was a study done over 90 years ago, by a person named Wheeler, who actually looked into how eclipses impact wildlife. 


JACOB:  So, is he saying that another scientist had this exact same question, almost a century ago? 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah! So, the guy’s name is William Morton Wheeler, he was this entomologist with a big, caterpillar-like mustache.  


JACOB: [Laughs] 


CHRISTIAN: And he’d found reports of birds “ceasing singing” during an eclipse in 1544. So he teamed up with some colleagues who were experts on birds and mammals to do this study. And the craziest thing is that experiment happened in Boston, just a few blocks down the road from Trae’s office.  

[MUSIC: Dreaming of Home by Dayna Ambrosio] 



It actually took place around the August 31, 1932 total solar eclipse that passed over the New England area in the northeast part of the United States.  


CHRISTIAN: That’s MaryKay Severino, co-lead on the project. So, it’s the 1930s, this was well before NASA, of course. Before the internet, before citizen science programs existed. And so what Wheeler did was put out a newspaper ad. 


[SFX: Typewriter keys clacking, pencils writing on paper] 



And he received almost 500 responses.  



And those experiences just weren’t just what was the change of light levels and stuff like that. But they also reported what they heard as well as what they felt. 



They felt temperature drops what they heard, some heard crickets, some heard a moment of silence.  


[SFX: Crickets chirping] 


CHRISTIAN: In particular, there’s a lot of anecdotal observations from that old study about what animals do during eclipses. 



Cows turn around and start to head back to the barn. I guess it’s nighttime, it’s time for me to go to bed. Bees who are used to being out and about all of a sudden realize, “Oh, my gosh, I should be back at the hive, I better hurry up and get back there.” So, they zoom back.  


[SFX: Cows mooing, bees buzzing] 



My personal anecdote was for the 2017 eclipse, the team had found a place in the middle of nowhere that was a bird sanctuary. And the Eclipse happened, and we were all standing there…and out of nowhere. I heard owls start to hoot. 


[SFX: Owls hooting] 



These animals are experiencing almost like a sped up version of dusk, night and dawn, that typically happens over several hours, in just a few minutes. And so that creates some confusion in the natural world. 


CHRISTIAN: But it’s 2024, not 1932, so the team’s working with some more advanced tech to study that confusion… they’re using something called an “Audio Moth.” 


JACOB: Huh. And what is an Audio Moth? 



So, this audio recorder can record a wide range of frequencies… 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah so it’s this little handheld device. It’s got these little bumps on it so low-vision citizen scientists can use it. You switch it on and attach it to a tree or a park bench or something to listen for changes in the soundscape.  


[SFX: Beeping] 


CHRISTIAN: The research team gave these out to a bunch of libraries, national parks, and volunteers ahead of the April eclipse. Habitats are unique. So, if you want to really learn something, you can’t just ask people in Boston. The team’s hoping to record 300 habitats all across the U.S, on April 8. And they actually got a trial run in too, during the “Ring of Fire” annular eclipse last fall. 


[MUSIC: Botanical Reflections by Gina Kouyoumdjian] 


JACOB: So, there’s actually people who have experience using these things. So, what do you know about what it’s like to use one of these things to contribute to the project? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, I got ahold of one group that tried out the Audio Moths then and will participate again in April. 



Hi, my name is Mary Pearl Meuth, I’m the assistant state coordinator for the Texas Master Naturalist Program. 


CHRISTIAN: Mary got connected with NASA Eclipse Soundscapes through another Texas Master Naturalist, Kjell Lundgren. His day job is NASA astronaut. The group participates in a lot of Earth-focused citizen science projects. Last fall, volunteers gathered on a nature reserve on the South Texas coast with their Audio Moths for the annular eclipse. 


[SFX: Birds chirping, light breeze] 



We pre-set these audio moths and put them out into different corners across the property amongst the mosquitoes and the thorn brush scrub and the South Texas sand plains.  


[SFX: Mosquitos buzz] 



The change in how the day felt around you was so tangible, not only in that temperature drop, but the whole world felt like it was going to sleep for just a little bit. The birds and the insects quieted and settled, and so did the 400 naturalists. They settled for a little bit too. Even with your eyes closed and your head pointed down, it was obvious there was something happening. It was magical. 



We often think of eclipses as something you go to see, where are you going to watch the eclipse, we often get bogged down in what will I do if it’s cloudy, because we are so focused on watching the eclipse, but they’re multi-sensory experiences. 


JACOB: That’s so cool, and it makes a lot of sense. Christian, what else do you have for us? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, there are a ton more eclipse focused projects that involve everything from using HAM radio to bounce waves off the ionosphere, to sending weather balloons up into the path of totality. But I want to focus on a couple of projects that you can participate in anytime. 


JACOB: OK, sounds useful, I mean, evergreen projects, join it when you’re ready, right? 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah exactly. OK, remember Liz? She actually has her own citizen science project that’s been going on for a number of years. Chandresh from the beginning of this episode is part of it. It’s called Aurorasaurus. 


JACOB: Huh. Now, Christian, I’ve always been a T-Rex fan, but I’m sure Aurorasaurus is a totally fine dinosaur too. 


[MUSIC: In Suspension by Mathild Empereur] 


CHRISTIAN: Jacob, I’m sorry to say Aurorasaurus has nothing to do with dinosaurs, but I promise you this is going to be equally cool. So, we talked a bit about the aurora in the first episode of our Sun series, but I think it’s worth getting into what the northern and southern lights are in a bit more detail, here… 



The Aurora is kind of the last step in a process that has many steps and starts on the sun. 


CHRISTIAN: Jacob, what do you remember about that process? 


JACOB: Ooh a pop quiz. Um, OK, I know the Sun is sending out the solar wind in all directions all the time… this constant stream of charged particles. And they bump into Earth’s magnetic field, which is this big magnetic bubble generated by our planet’s iron core, and it extends out into space to protect us. 


CHRISTIAN: Yes, you aced it. 



So, it’s always being bombarded by particles, some of which are pretty high energy particles. And those particles from the solar wind can get caught up in the Earth’s magnetic field. And then they get transported from the sort of sunward side where they enter to the night side, basically, the dark side of the earth. And that energy gets stored up in the Earth’s magnetic fields, causing it to stretch a little bit like a rubber band… 


[SFX: Magnetosphere rebounding from solar storm, rubber band snapping] 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, and since these are charged particles, which means they have electrical charge, they get stuck on the magnetic field lines, and they have to follow them down towards the poles at high speeds when that rubber band snaps back 



And since they’ve been accelerated, they actually are going to hit some of the particles in the upper atmosphere. And when they do that, they make a little bit of light. And that light happens really high up. So, the colors that you see are mostly from the impacts on oxygen particles up there, and also a little bit from nitrogen.  


JACOB: So, you’re seeing Earth’s magnetic field lines light up, like the magnetosphere is in action and showing us how it’s protecting us… 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, that’s exactly right! And up near the poles, that pattern of energy storage and release is happening all the time, it’s just a normal process for our planet.  



We do understand about, like, 90%, of the physics of all of this process…  


CHRISTIAN: But since we’re near solar maximum, when the Sun is at its most active, we’re seeing these bigger eruptions, these big flares on the Sun, and they’re sort of supercharging the aurora. And what that means for us is more dramatic displays and displays further south than usual. And those things we don’t understand as well.  



When that happens it disturbs the system, like significantly. And so, we really need more eyes, on the ground, and in space to understand what happens… 


CHRISTIAN: So basically, you need photos of the aurora from the ground to match up with data from satellites passing overhead at the same time. But scientists like Liz are not photographers, they are not spending all their time out in the mountains of Canada or Scandinavia waiting for the aurora. Luckily for them, there are folks that do that. Scientists like Liz are super dedicated to studying aurora using imagery, but there’s this whole world of folks who are maybe even more dedicated… Aurora chasers 


[MUSIC: Malware Intrusion by Jean-François Berger] 



I’ve seen it hundreds of times. I’m very lucky. I’ve seen it from, ooh, seven countries? And still wanting more 



Once you’ve seen it, it’s really addictive, you want to see it again. And you want to know why and how and all the rest. So, it’s just snowballed into me becoming an aurora guide. [Laughs] 

CHRISTIAN: That’s Hannahbella Nel, she’s an aurora guide based in the southwestern UK and an ambassador for the Aurorasaurus project.  


JACOB: Aurora guide sounds like an incredible job. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, it definitely sounds fun. What she does is she takes people all over the world on tours to see the aurorae. It takes a lot of specialized knowledge to get people to the right places at the right times and explain the science. Anyway, Hannahbella started out photographing the Milky Way at night in dark sky areas of local national parks, kind of as a hobby, then on a worldwide trip to dark sky reserves, she fell in love with the aurora in Alberta, Canada. 



I was supposed to go on to Bali and Japan, but something in Canada was calling me back. 


CHRISTIAN: She joined the Alberta Aurora Chasers, this group of thousands of dedicated chasers that have this active Facebook group where they share their photos by day and help each other chase down the aurora at night. 



It is quite like a family. It’s really nice. It’s really uplifting. Everybody’s like, “You caught that? That’s amazing! Ah, look what I got this time!” 


CHRISTIAN: The way you or I might check the weather forecast, these folks check the space weather forecast. They’re constantly looking for strong solar flares. They have the Sun’s 28-day rotational cycle on their calendars, so they know when a coronal hole will rotate back around towards Earth. 



And if it’s facing Earth, it’s go time, charge your cameras. If the weather here locally is good, that is. 


JACOB: Well, I’m thinking of the eclipse chasers, like Fred that we met in episode two of this series who are willing to go anywhere to catch a glimpse of an eclipse, And I’m getting similar vibes here. I mean, aurora chasers are also always running from bad weather and looking for clear skies, I imagine. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah Hannahbella signs off her emails with “Many thanks and clear skies,” which I might have to steal. Anyway, these chasers of solar phenomena, they’re willing to drive hundreds of miles to be in the right place at the right time to experience a great show. And those shows can vary a lot!  When you think of aurora, you probably think of green lines in the sky… That’s what I saw the one time I was lucky enough to experience it. But an aurora chaser can set you straight… it comes in so many shapes and varieties. 



It looks different every time. It is never two nights the same. You can have different colors: the red Auroras you’ll have green and then a red above it, blue aurora, big blue pillars, absolutely stunning. 


CHRISTIAN: There’s all this chaser lingo for aurora features, like picket fences.  


JACOB: … And I can totally see how you get sucked in, there’s always that promise of a bigger aurora, a better aurora or just a different one that’s always out there over the horizon. 


[MUSIC: Lull by Brandi cole Thomas] 


CHRISTIAN: Exactly, that’s a big part of it. And you remember how Chandresh started wondering about what Indigenous folks in Canada thought about the aurora? It’s the same with Hannahbella… She loves all the folklore about aurora, which is different throughout the world. 


[SFX: Footsteps on snow] 



…each country does seem to have their own kind of amazing stories. Finland’s got one about the Firefox, sort of whips his tail in the snow, which sends sparkles up into the sky, which is the Aurora. Never shake your handkerchief at the Aurora, she’ll come and get you. You shouldn’t wear your hair down. You could get tangled up and taken to the sky… 


CHRISTIAN: And while aurora chasers are out admiring the northern lights, they’ve also been known to make discoveries that scientists miss. One night stands out for Hannahbella, it was sort of her entry into this world. She was at Pyramid Lake, an isolated spot deep in Jasper National Park in Canada, all alone on this wooden bridge. 


[SFX: Footsteps on wooden bridge, icy wind blowing] 



I cycle out into the dark with my camera equipment set up, as soon as I set it up, I see the aurora kind of building up behind the mountains and the north and suddenly it’s getting taller and taller. And then suddenly these big blue pillars, and then the aurora is horizon to horizon and rippling all above you like you’re under the ocean, some absolutely magical dancing around James Brown, celebrating [Laughs] by yourself in the dark. It was wonderful. 


[SFX: Ocean waves] 


CHRISTIAN: And then, as the main show started to fade away, she noticed something unexpected… a sort of aurora she’d never seen before.  



The aurora was starting to bubble away in the north, but to the west and east, there was a strange purple ribbon of light that looked a bit like a plane contrail, going in the wrong place for aurora. But it just wasn’t moving. It wasn’t fading. And it looked like it was twisting. I was like, “This is weird.” I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I hadn’t really seen the aurora too many times at this point. So, I turned my camera to shoot in that direction. 


[SFX: Camera shutter clicks] 



And then it starts developing these green picket fence lines coming off the edges of it, wonderful. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m capturing STEVE.” 


JACOB: I’m sorry, hang out… did she say capturing… STEVE? 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, STEVE was the name the aurora chaser group had given this mysterious pink line in the sky they kept seeing. It’s a reference to this movie Over the Hedge, where this mysterious hedge pops up out of nowhere and the woodland creatures name it Steve. 


JACOB: And so, this STEVE is, a big mysterious hedge in the sky? 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, the aurora chasers are a funny bunch. Anyway, Liz had realized what a great resource these aurora chasers could be for her team at NASA, so a few years back she’d launched Aurorasaurus, a way to connect scientists with the aurora chasers doing what is essentially this great science fieldwork. Liz had been seeing a lot of these sorts of photos of this phenomenon that chasers were calling Steve popping up on the Facebook group None of her colleagues knew what it was, so she’d started up the project to figure STEVE out. When Hannahbella uploaded her photos from the lake there, Liz reached out to her. 



And that was like my introduction to Aurorasaurus. And from that point, the rest is history. 


JACOB: Well, I’m on the edge of my seat here… did Liz figure out STEVE? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, by matching up photos from Hannahbella and other chasers with satellite measurements, scientists figured out it’s this rare sort of cousin to the normal aurora that forms super high in the sky from this trail of really fast moving particles. They made an acronym for it so the chasers could keep calling it STEVE. They’d gotten a little attached to that name. 


[MUSIC: Kind Gesture by Lincoln Jaeger] 



STEVE is a strong thermal emission velocity enhancement, which refers to the particles that are causing that light.  


CHRISTIAN: Oh, and funny enough, Liz realized these chasers had actually re-discovered STEVE. 


JACOB: Oh, what do you mean? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, after Liz published the research about STEVE, she found a paper from a century ago with these black-and-white photos of the same line up in the sky that look a lot like Hannahbella’s.  


CHRISTIAN: They’d been taken by some scientists in Norway, who’d died a few years before the Space Age began, right before satellites opened up this new era in Sun science and aurora physics. So, this discovery had sort of been overlooked. 



And they called them “feeble homogenous arcs of great altitude”, which is true. They are at a different altitude than the typical Aurora.  


JACOB: Wow this is like with the eclipse soundscapes project… citizen scientists answering these open questions that were forgotten from almost a hundred years ago. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, you’re totally right. Citizen scientists seem to have a knack for catching things scientists have missed, filling in the gaps! 



It’s kind of this mutual rockstar effect.  


CHRISTIAN: It’s really a great partnership! Scientists are motivated by figuring out particle dynamics, Aurora chasers are motivated by the sheer beauty of this natural phenomena. To Liz, the aurora is interesting. To aurora chasers it’s addicting, life changing. She brings the expertise, they bring the passion. 



The science of it is constantly mind blowing. And it’s been really inspiring to be able to work with people like these amazing NASA scientists and people who are studying it full time, as somebody who is a citizen scientist, I never thought I’d have that opportunity. I’ve learnt so much and I will shout Aurora from the rooftops because I think that other people will feel the same. [Laughs] To get involved with science, science is magic. 


CHRISTIAN: Now there’s one more project that’s just so cool we have to talk about it. It’s called Sungrazer. And to me, it’s a story about how sometimes,  NASA’s intrepid spacecraft can surprise even the engineers who build them…  and how citizen scientists can surprise the scientists who use those spacecraft for research. The Sungrazer story starts with a very special spacecraft called SOHO, which was designed to study solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface.   



SOHO is one of the oldest, and in my very unbiased opinion, one of the most amazing spacecraft missions that we’ve ever launched. I don’t think you could find a solar physicist that would disagree that it’s been probably the most influential heliophysics mission of all time. 


CHRISTIAN: This is Karl Battams, he’s a scientist at the Naval Research Lab, and he’s the Principal Investigator on the Sungrazer project, basically the lead scientist. SOHO launched back in 1995, and immediately started taking these super great photos of the Sun’s surface. And since it was the 1990s, scientists started uploading the images to the internet, which was brand new, so the public could see them. And pretty quickly, they realized SOHO had an unexpected superpower. 



And a small group of amateur astronomers started looking at the images and realized, “Hey, look at that there’s this tiny little dot moving, there’s a comet in these images.” And everyone’s very excited. And they make some measurements of these comets. But no one really appreciated just how many comets were gonna start turning up. 


[MUSIC: Data Crime by Jean-François Berger] 


JACOB: Wait, so this is a Sun studying spacecraft, but it’s also catching glimpses of comets? 


CHRISTIAN: Yes, this will be a comet story for a while, but I promise it’s still a Sun story if you bear with me for a minute. This comet-discovering ability was a totally unexpected trick SOHO had up its sleeve! 



SOHO is purely a sun watching spacecraft designed exclusively to study the surface of the Sun, solar eruptions and that kind of thing. So there was no intent for it to discover comets. It’s just by luck… and good design. 


CHRISTIAN: SOHO is one of those spacecraft that has a coronagraph, a disk in front of its camera that perfectly blocks the Sun’s surface, just like the Moon does during a total solar eclipse. And so, it lets us see faint objects really close to the Sun that it’s usually way too bright to see, like comets. Anyway, pretty soon, people were looking at the images and reporting new comets to NASA. 


[SFX: Email pings increasing in frequency] 



And it started to be too much for the scientists to handle. All these emails have started to flood in with people saying, I found a comet I found a comet. So eventually, one of the scientists decided, well, I got to do something about this. I’ll just create a website where people can Just send their reports to this website instead of filling in my inbox. 

[SFX: Keyboard clicking, ping sound] 


CHRISTIAN: And Sungrazer was born! Before SOHO came on the scene, scientists had only discovered about a dozen of these sungrazing comets. Now, SOHO discovers one about every two days. 



So that was um, that was like 23 years ago, now that website was launched. And, uh, miraculously, we’re still going strong. 


JACOB: How many comets has SOHO discovered, exactly? I’m thinking like hundreds, or even thousands at this point? 


CHRISTIAN: Well, as we were getting ready to publish this episode… the team hit a huge milestone… 5,000 comets! 


JACOB: Holy smokes, that’s a lot of comets. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, and this spacecraft is pushing 30! It was designed for a two-year mission studying the Sun, but it just keeps on going, and keeps on giving in this unexpected way, advancing comet science and Sun science at the same time. 



SOHO is overwhelmingly the most successful comet discoverer in history. I think right now we’re approaching two thirds of all officially documented comets carry SOHO’s name. 


JACOB: Can we back up here a second? For those of us who aren’t comet experts like Karl here, I mean, what kinds of comets is SOHO looking at? 


[MUSIC: Mystery Unfolds by Mathild Empereur] 


CHRISTIAN: Right, so if we go back in time, billions of years ago before we had planets in our solar system, and there was just this big spinning cloud of dust and ice. That material eventually formed our planets, but there were leftovers… 


[SFX: Whooshing and tinkling] 


JACOB: Right comets are those leftovers, right? These really cold, mushed together balls of frozen gas and dust and ice and rock. And all that stuff that just didn’t make the planet cut. But I thought they tended to be way, way out in the far recesses of our solar system, just kind of lurking out Where we couldn’t see them most of the time. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, most of them are! They take these long trips through space and we only see them every once in a while. But a few have these funky orbits that take them super close, really too close, to the Sun.  


Sungrazer is focused on what we call sungrazing comets. And the name is kind of a giveaway there. So sungrazing literally means these things graze the surface of the Sun, really ridiculously close to the Sun.  


CHRISTIAN: Most of the comets SOHO has discovered belong to a single family. It’s called the Kreutz group, it’s named after a German astronomer that first discovered these sungrazing comets.  



Some thousands of years ago, a moderately big comet got a little bit too close to the sun. And all of the forces that it felt gravitational forces and all the heating from the sun, it caused this big comet to literally fall apart. And it crumbled into a whole bunch of smaller comets.  


[SFX: Comet whooshes by, sizzles and explodes] 


CHRISTIAN: This was a middle-of-the-road comet, about a few miles in diameter.  


JACOB: If miles across is “middle of the road,” then these things are a lot bigger than I realized! 



We’ve certainly seen much, much bigger comets than that. So, it really doesn’t take a very big object to create 5,000 house-sized comets. 


CHRISTIAN: Anyway, this crumbly pile of smaller comets continued in its parent comet’s elliptical orbit way out into our solar system, and back. It’s like a big oval racetrack with the Sun on one end. And eventually they get back to the Sun again. 



Same process happens, they get too hot, they get too close to the Sun, they fall apart, again, and disappear off into the solar system.  


[SFX: Comet whooshes by, sizzles] 



And you do this a couple of times. And what you end up with is this massive population of tiny little comets that fly right by the Sun and vaporize. 


[SFX: Hissing of comets vaporizing] 


JACOB: So, what I’m hearing is that every time this comet group comes by the Sun, it falls apart a little bit more? How long has this been going on? 



Undoubtedly, these tiny little sungrazing comets have been vaporizing for thousands of years, unknown to us. But prior to the modern spacecraft era, the only ones that ever got reported were those that were bright enough that they can actually be seen in daylight skies. 


CHRISTIAN: Before SOHO, the Sun was just too blindingly bright for us to see what was going on. And by now, it’s sort of the end stage for this Kreutz group. It’s falling apart into ever smaller pieces, and before long, it’ll be gone. But the upside is, with every pass there are new comets to discover… at least, briefly.  



We are sort of slowly witnessing the death of a large comet. 


[MUSIC: Hidden Intention by Jean-François Berger] 


JACOB: Well, it’s kind of nice and kind of poetic that people are willing to look at this SOHO imagery and do all this work of discovering these comets even though they won’t last. Even though we’re seeing their last gasps right before these comets go. 


JACOB: So Christian, let me bring it back to the science here because this is cool and it sounds like they’re some cool space detective work going on, but like, why do it? I mean, what can we learn from these dying comets? 


CHRISTIAN: I wanted to know too, and Karl was ready for that question. 


Karl 34:33 

Yes, we’ve got all the comet stuff because we’ve got 5,000 comets, blah, blah, blah, lots of comet science coming out of it. But what’s also really awesome is that we are witnessing these things interacting with the near-Sun environment. We’re witnessing them interact with the solar wind. And the solar wind makes comet tails move and wiggle around. 


[SFX: Flag flapping in the wind] 


CHRISTIAN: By watching comet tails wiggle, we can measure the speed and direction of the solar wind, like a windsock at an airport. We’ve even seen comet tails get hit by coronal mass ejections. And with the ones that pass really, really close to the Sun, like through the Sun’s atmosphere, we can see how they interact with the magnetic fields there. The dust from those comet tails clings to those magnetic field lines, kind of like how the solar wind particles in the aurora follow Earth’s magnetic field lines. Both of these phenomena are sort of like messengers for us that reveal the Sun’s invisible behavior. 


JACOB: Wow, that’s pretty amazing! 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, and that’s not all. To close, I want to tell you about one dedicated Sungrazer contributor. This isn’t an easy project to work on. You aren’t going out and gazing at the aurora or at eclipses. It’s hard work, searching through images for tiny, faint objects for hours and hours. 



Sungrazer is a very challenging project. I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s something that you could just kind of casually sit down and glance at for 10 minutes, while you’re eating your lunch. 


[MUSIC: Catharsis by Al Lethbridge] 


CHRISTIAN: But still, if you aren’t careful, the Sun can suck you in. 



I love looking for comets. It’s really exciting to be the first to see comets get bright near the Sun after they have been traveling through space for thousands of years. 


CHRISTIAN: That’s Hanjie Tan. He joined Sungrazer in 2009, as a middle schooler in China. He found his first comet right away, looking through the SOHO imagery. 



The comet C/2009Y5. I discovered it a month after I joined the Sungrazer project, when I was just 13. And that discovery started my interest in physics and astronomy.  


CHRISTIAN: Sungrazer got him thinking about space and wondering if there could be life elsewhere in the universe. It really set him on his trajectory toward becoming an astronomer and studying asteroids, these other remnants, building blocks of our solar system. Since middle school, he’s discovered 200 sungrazing comets through 10,000 hours of searching. And he’s actually the guy who discovered the 5,000th comet, just last week! 


JACOB: Wow, what a cool milestone. 


CHRISTIAN: Yeah, he has poured so much time into this that he really deserves this success. Anyway, whenever new photos from SOHO come out, he dives into them. You look at a few images in a row and you can see movement and identify the comets.  


JACOB: Yeah, I can see how that would add up and take a lot of time and dedication… 


CHRISTIAN: No kidding. And it doesn’t stop there. He actually built an AI program that goes back through all of the SOHO imagery to look for comets that other contributors missed. And that’s how he found his favorite so far! It’s called SOHO4464. It had a weird orbit, and it was very dim, so it had been missed for years.  


Hanjie 23:00 

The earliest comet I discovered in the archived data image was from 1997. I found this comet years later, even though the picture was captured when I was just a kid learning to speak. They had been missed for over two decades before I identified them from the vast ocean of stars.  


CHRISTIAN: His next goal is to discover a comet on his own, using his telescope. And he almost did last year! 



SOHO project teach me like, don’t give up, just keep going, the next comet is waiting for you. 


JACOB: Wow. Well, this has been a wild ride. Christian, thank you so much. 


CHRISTIAN: Thank you, Jacob. 


JACOB: And remember, whether it’s eclipses, aurorae, comets… there are so many citizen science rabbit holes you can fall down into. All you have to do is keep your eyes open, and your ears, and all your other senses, to keep experiencing the Sun, and of course, don’t forget to stay curious. 


CHRISTIAN: Thank you, Jacob, and until next time, I’m wishing you clear skies. 


JACOB: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christian Elliott. Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes me, Jacob Pinter, Maddie Olson, Micheala Sosby, and of course, Padi Boyd. Krystofer Kim is our show artist. 


JACOB: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds. Special thanks to the NASA heliophysics team, Julia Tilton and Scott Swofford. 


JACOB: If you want to get involved in Sungrazer or Aurorasaurus, go to And if you catch this episode before the April 2024 total solar eclipse in North America, I’m sorry to say It’s too late to get an Audio Moth, but there’s still time to participate in Eclipse Soundscapes the old-fashioned way… you can write down your experience of the eclipse, just like folks did back in 1932. And you can help out by listening through and analyzing the data after the eclipse. And if you plan to experience our star through an eclipse, please, please, wear approved eclipse glasses before and after totality. 


JAOCB: If you enjoyed this episode of NASA’s Curious Universe, please let us know by leaving us a review and sharing the show with a friend. And remember, you can “follow” NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode.  


[NASA Podcasts stinger: This is an official NASA podcast] 


JACOB: I’m sorry, hang on. Did you say capturing Steve? 


CHRISTIAN: Yes. It’s my dad’s name too. 


JACOB: [Laughs] 


CHRISTIAN: Special thanks to the real Steve. Earthly Steve. It’s also my middle name. 


JACOB: Wow. 


CHRISTIAN: I mean technically it’s Steven. So, you know. Really, really, Steve is my father 


JACOB: [Laughs] Actually, my name is Steve. 


CHRISTIAN: Actually, everyone’s name is Steve. 


JACOB: [Laughs] 


CHRISTIAN: Uh, I think we’ve got it. I don’t have any other Steve comments.