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Citizen Science

The Sun Lab

Science Scope—July/August 2022 (Volume 45, Issue 6)

By Jill Nugent

The Sun is the star of summertime as it fills the days with warmth and sunshine. And in its role as our planet’s closest star, it provides an array of connections to energy concepts. For example, the Sun serves as an energy source; provides heat to keep us warm; and drives photosynthesis and the Earth processes, including the water cycle, local wind, and weather. The Sun helps make our planet habitable and life on Earth depends on the Sun.

In addition to the Sun’s role in weather on Earth, the Sun also impacts weather in space. In fact, there is a “darker” side to our Sun. The sun’s gaseous, dynamic landscape experiences massive solar storms that can impact daily life on Earth. With today’s dependence on modern technology, we feel the influences of solar storms more than ever. Solar storms involve radiation, charged particles, and magnetic fields, all of which can impact satellites and communications. Strong solar storms can also cause surges to the power grid, leading to outages in power and communications (such as email and cell phones).

Research is helping scientists understand and predict the Sun’s behavior. Today’s technology allows scientists to see and study the Sun in detail. The NOVA Sun Lab invites students to learn about the Sun and its weather through research that leverages the same tools as scientists!

Project goal: To help scientists predict solar storms

Task: Use data, images, and online tools to help predict solar storms

Science discipline: Earth Science

The NOVA Sun Lab includes the Helioviewer, an innovative solar observation tool developed to bring real-time data to understand the Sun’s surface and its atmosphere (see Figure 1). Note that teachers may need to remind students to never look at the Sun directly and that technology and images allow us to safely learn about the Sun from our computers.

Figure 1
The sun, over 100 times larger in diameter than Earth, drives many of our planet’s processes. Tools such as the Helioviewer, part of The NOVA Sun Lab, allow students to study our closest star like never before.

The sun, over 100 times larger in diameter than Earth, drives many of our planet’s processes. Tools such as the Helioviewer, part of The NOVA Sun Lab, allow students to study our closest star like never before.

The Sun Lab provides abundant resources for students and educators (see “Helpful Project Links”). In addition to The Sun Lab challenges, additional resources include helpful background information on the Sun, a video library, lesson plan, quizzes, and an educator guide. The Sun Lab includes the following challenges through online activities: solar cycle, storm prediction, and open exploration.

In the solar cycle online activity, students take the challenge to count sunspots. Sunspots are areas of the Sun that are cooler than other spots on the Sun’s surface. Sunspots tend to appear where there is a strong magnetic field. Counting sunspots is a simple and reliable way to estimate solar activity in the solar cycle. The fewer the sunspots, the less activity, while the greater number of sunspots tends to correspond to higher activity and a greater potential for solar storms. In the solar cycle activity, students will be guided through an online exploration counting sunspots, and they will be able to decipher if solar activity is increasing, decreasing, or remaining relatively stable.

In the storm prediction online activity, after students have learned how to count sunspots, they will begin to compare solar images to determine which area may produce a solar storm. In this guided activity, students will see that sunspots vary in size, motion, and complexity. After completing each scenario, students are able to view a video of what took place in the regions that they observed.

In the open exploration online activity, The Sun Lab encourages students to use the Helioviewer. The Helioviewer is a revolutionary tool that allows students to observe, ask questions, and engage in exploration and analysis. The Helioviewer provides access to near real-time images of the Sun, allowing students to access authentic data, as well as review historical data, and even compare data over time.

Materials you will need:

  • Computer
  • Internet access

Possible prompts to help guide students in their open exploration using the Helioviewer include:

  • Can you identify a region on the Sun’s surface that might produce a solar storm in the near future?
  • Select a day in the past as well as a location, and explore changes over time.
  • Research dates and details of major solar storms, and use the Helioviewer to see what the solar storm looked like.

Students can work on investigations in teams and share the topic of their exploration as well as their findings and future questions with the class. Students may also be interested in researching related topics such as auroras, solar eclipses, and solar energy as a renewable resource. The Sun Lab provides a unique portal to engage students in science and the study of the Sun’s starring role in weather, seasons, and supporting life on Earth.

The NOVA Sun Lab at a glance

When: Anytime

How: Visit the project page (see “Project Home”). Participants can visit The Sun Lab and immediately begin engaging in challenges, or if preferred, participants can create a free account with NOVA Labs and use a login to participate.

Where: Online

Time needed: Variable

Special equipment needed: None

Cost: No cost to participate

Contact for more information:

Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom visit

Helpful Project Links

Project home—

Project link on SciStarter—

The Helioviewer—

The Sun Lab Challenge—

The Sun Lab Educator Guide—

The Sun Lab Lesson Plan—

The Sun Lab Video Collection—

This column is the result of a partnership between SciStarter and the National Science Teaching Association. For more information about SciStarter and other citizen science projects, please visit

Jill Nugent ( teaches science online, engages educators in citizen science experiences for the classroom, schoolyard, and beyond, and serves on the SciStarter Team. Follow SciStarter on Twitter: @SciStarter.

Citizen Science Physical Science Middle School

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