Rocky Raybell
Rocky Raybell

What motivated you to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist? How did you learn about NASA citizen science?

Well, actually, I didn’t. I was contacted by Dr. Toshi Nishimura, who was interested in using my photos for the study they were doing on STEVE (STEVE is an acronym that stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement; read more here and on the Aurorasaurus project blog). I had posted some pictures on Space Weather, and also put them on my Flickr account. I do a lot of photography.

When Toshi contacted me, I explained what I’d seen. I had good records, all my pictures are time stamped. That was the second STEVE I’d seen. I saw one in 2012. Toshi set up a site for me to upload pictures. His research team used my pictures in conjunction with the satellite data that they had.

“There’s always something going on, as long as you’ve got a sky.”
- Rocky Raybell

STEVE is a strange thing, it doesn’t happen with every aurora. Not with strong solar storms. Both events where I saw it, there was nothing particularly unusual happening. I’ve seen stronger auroras with no STEVE. But that night when I saw it, it came up like a fountain of light from behind the hill. It looked like flames coming out the top of the hill.

Picket Fence
An image of the aural phenomenon known as the “picket fence” that sometimes co-occurs with STEVE, captured by Rocky on May 7, 2016. This image was an important contribution to the research into the mechanism that produces the picket fence. Credit: Rocky Raybell

I’ve seen it a few times. I’ve seen it stretch from one horizon to the other. My son was out there with me the time I got the picket fence in 2016 - we were bouncing off the wall at that. When it jumped to the east, it was like a flash - incredibly fast. It shot across and disappeared on the eastern horizon. We’d watched it for 45 minutes. That was a lot of fun.

What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies.

Right now, it’s the camera. I’ve figured out how to hack inexpensive cameras to take long exposures. I end up toasting the sensors on the cameras eventually. Now I have a nice Nikon and I’m waiting on a better lens for the night sky. I have a 50 mm. I’m waiting on a new 24mm f/1.4 lens. I can’t do the things I did with the cheaper cameras until I get the new lens.

Two of the many hummingbirds visiting Rocky’s feeder on June 3, 2016. Credit: Rocky Raybell

I also take care of the hummers (hummingbirds) when they’re here. Got a lot of hummers. I’ve gone through 8 lbs of sugar a day to feed them. Once I left a door open and a little later, I started hearing thumping and stuff - we had well over 100 hummers inside the house. It took a long time to get them out of the house. They all made it.

“Trying to figure out what was going on has always been part of my life.”
- Rocky Raybell

What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?

NASA’s a good thing, I know that! I’m a fan of NASA. I grew up watching all that stuff from Sputnik all the way on through. I was born in ‘49 and have been watching NASA my whole life. Been quite a ride.

There’s so much going on that we don’t see. Once I started spending time outside at night, I was up all night and sleeping during the day for quite a while. There’s always something going on, as long as you’ve got a sky. I’ve had quite a few Disney nights out there, with one thing after another. I’ve seen a Chinese rocket body burning up on re-entry, I’ve seen the International Space Station coming over the hill looking like a bus all lit up by the Sun, I’ve seen Iridium satellites, all kinds of stuff. And things I still haven’t figured out, things that no one’s been able to tell me what they are.

One thing I’ve seen that I’d really like to figure out are these strange glowing lights - red, green. They are real brief. I’ve seen it with my eyes, then found the picture on the camera. I know it’s real because I’ve taken those shots with three different cameras. For a while, I went out to try to get those pictures, and I’d get them. It was an every night kind of thing. All year round, whether it was near zero or a summer night. This was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Maybe some kind of bird? I think they are something that everyone knows about, but they don’t know of that particular thing with that kind of bird. Some night bird maybe, like an owl.

I found a great horned owl in the road once. He’d been hit by a truck. He stayed with me for a month. I fed him mice until I couldn’t afford to anymore. He was a real pig. When I first found him, he didn’t even know he was an owl. I could pick him up. Once he got better, he’d get spooked. Then he got so he’d be real excited to see me, he’d know the chow was coming. I thought maybe that light was him. I’ve read stories where some owls get some kind of moss on them and they glow. Great horned owls stick around.

Which peer-reviewed research publications have you contributed to through your citizen science work? What was your role in the research and writing process?

My photographs contributed to the research presented in, “Magnetospheric Signatures of STEVE: Implications for the Magnetospheric Energy Source and Interhemispheric Conjugacy,” which was published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2019.

There were other people who got images of STEVE. Up in Canada and in the northern part of the midwest. I understand what they were doing, matching up the satellite images with pictures like mine taken from the ground. I wasn’t so much involved in what Toshi and his team were doing, but I was able to follow it. The satellite data was a big deal. These satellites just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

What have you learned about the process of science from your time on NASA citizen science projects?

I have a general idea of how science works. There’s a lot of “let me try this, let me try that.” Working at the hospital, being around Dr. Tom Marchioro - he was a pioneer in the transplant business who kind of took me under his wing - helped me get an understanding of things.

Trying to figure out what was going on has always been part of my life. We had some medical mysteries in my family. My brother was born with birth defects, which lead to my giving him one of my kidneys. Huntington’s disease was in my family. I was always trying to understand what was going on and why. I didn’t have the attitude required to pursue medicine, even though I had reason to. Dr. Marchioro, my mentor, started out working in the mines in Montana. His mother died in the hospital because of a mistake. That experience drove him into medicine. He was really a cool guy. I was lucky to have known him.

You know, deep-sea diving had a lot of physics in it, too. That was an education that gave me a good experience and a foundation for understanding what was going on around me. I’ve been lucky.

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