New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch

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Sun-worshiper alert! Now you can have the chance to help scientists spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research. The ‘hottest’ new Citizen Science project from the “Zooniverse” is Solar Storm Watch. Volunteers can spot storms and track their progress as they hurtle across space towards our planet. Your “clicks” and input will help solar scientists better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth. “The more people looking at our data, the more discoveries we will make,” said Dr. Chris Davis, Project Scientist with the STEREO mission. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”

Solar Storm Watch has been in Beta testing for about two months, but is now officially open for business. “It’s been wonderful to watch the team get ready for a flood of data,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse — new citizen science projects that that use the Galaxy Zoo model — of which Solar Storm Watch is a part. ” I’m sure there are discoveries there already.”

“I’ve been sitting at my desk watching the results roll in and there are plenty of CMEs that just need a few more clicks,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of Zooniverse, who has helped solar astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich integrate their science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model.

STEREO spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. STEREO’s two wide-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometers from the Earth to the Sun.

“The Solar Stormwatch website has a game-like feel without losing any of the science,” said Julia Wilkinson, Solar Stormwatch volunteer. “I can click away identifying features and watch solar storms head towards Earth on the video clips and learn about solar science at the same time. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s educational and you get to contribute to real astronomy research without being an expert in astrophysics … The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighboring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like. Solar astronomy has never been easier!”

Solar Storm Watch has made their project very interactive with social media, as you can share your discoveries on the user forum and Flickr, as well as follow the space weather forecast on Twitter. SSW also has a blog to shre the latest news and challenges.

To participate, go to the Solar Storm Watch website. You can get a “Mission Briefing”, or watch informative videos on why the solar science community needs you!

Sources: Royal Observatory, Zooniverse

Journey Around A Black Hole – Epsilon Aurigae

Now that the Moon is absent from the early evening picture, are you ready to journey around a black hole? It’s not an easy observation, but it is one that doesn’t require highly specialized equipment and its not difficult to find. Can you identify Capella? Then let’s rock…

Using the map below to help you identify the constellation of Auriga, you won’t have any problem picking out the sixth brightest star in the northern hemisphere night – bright, yellowish-white Capella. While Alpa Aurigae is an interested spectroscopic binary star, it’s not our target. If your skies are fairly dark, look a few fingerwidths southwest for much dimmer Epsilon (the backward 3 on our map). Epsilon Aurigae is an eclipsing binary star, but one that has an extraordinarily long period -27.1 years. While it only drops .8 of a magnitude, it’s dark companion is a 10-12 solar mass black hole. According to studies done by Wilson and Cameron a ring of obscuring material surrounds the black hole and accounts for the magnitude drop. And it’s dropping now!

According to AAVSO Special Notice #192 prepared by Aaron Price: “Epsilon Aurigae continues to progress through its first eclipse since 1982-84. Visual and photometric observation means place it at around magnitude 3.7-3.8. Totality was likely reached sometime in January, but it will take some time to analyze the data to establish a specific date. Totality is expected to last about 15 months, but the system is not expected to remain quiet during this time. Small amplitude modulations are being detected which are likely not associated with the eclipse itself. However, their exact source is still debated. The amplitude of these modulations are at the limit of the average observer’s ability to detect visually. Therefore this may make a nice, challenging system to test your eyes. Right now, Epsilon Aurigae is well placed for observing high in the sky right after dusk.

In addition to these modulations, a mid-eclipse brightening of a few tenths of a magnitude have been reported in past eclipses. If confirmed, it would contribute significantly to our understanding of the structure of the eclipsing disk of material. The problem is this will happen next summer when epsilon Aurigae is near solar conjunction. So observations very early in the morning later this season will be very important. It may be a good idea to begin practicing twilight observations right now.”

What will it look like? Just a barely perceptible change in brightness, but observers interested in DSLR or photoelectric photometers may want to use this project as an entry point. A team of observers is working on a series of tutorials on the Citizen Sky web site. General information regarding the Epsilon Aurigae campaign and a series of online discussion forums can be found at the Citizen Sky web site. Information is also available to submit your observations to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), too!

Journey around a black hole… If you dare!

Epsilon Aurigae illustration is courtesy of Nico Camargo.

New Amazing Mars Flyover Videos


Doug Ellison from UnmannedSpaceflight.com has done it again… and again… and again. Here are new Mars flyover videos Doug has created from data from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Using DEM (Digital Elevation Model)– (also known as DTM Digital Terrain Model) files provided by the HiRISE team, Doug is able to render 3-D movies of a specific location on Mars. Since he is using actual high-resolution data from HiRISE, Doug says the terrain seen in the movies has accurate vertical scaling and is not exaggerated. These new views of the Red Planet are also stunningly beautiful! The video above is of the Mojave Crater wall on Mars, and below is Athabasca Valles. And Doug says more are on the way! If you recall, Doug created the flyover video of the Spirit rover’s location that was on Astronomy Picture of the Day.
Continue reading “New Amazing Mars Flyover Videos”

HiRISE Makes Your Wishes Comes True

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The HiRISE science team is now taking requests! A new web tool called HiWish is now available for the high-resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which allows the public to suggest a location on Mars where the HiRISE instrument should take an image. If you don’t have a particular location, you can use the HiWish site to browse around the planet, examine the locations of other data sets, and find a place that should be imaged. The team will then put into their targeting database, and your suggestion may get selected as an upcoming observation. Furthermore, the HiWish site allows you to track your suggestions and be notified when one of your suggestions gets taken.

Maybe you could even find a really unusual feature on Mars, such as this race-track-like feature that may one day be a landing site for a future mission to the Red Planet. HiRISE images will help determine if this spot is sufficiently safe for landing, such as not too many boulders, steep slopes, or too many high speed MASCAR races — (that’s the Mars Association for Super Cool Aerodynamical Racing). If it is safe, it may be considered for the 2011 Mars Science Laboratory or the 2018 rovers that ESA and NASA are working on for a join mission.

The above image is actually a huge shield volcano in the northeast part of Syrtis Major, and near the Northwest rim of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin.

So, go create an account at HiWish and get wishing!

Measuring the Moon’s Eccentricity at Home

View of the moon at perigee and apogee

Caption: View of the moon at perigee and apogee

As a teacher, I’m always on the lookout for labs with simple setups appropriate for students. My current favorite is finding the speed of light with chocolate.

In a new paper recently uploaded to arXiv, Kevin Krisciunas from Texas A&M describes a method for determining the orbital eccentricity of the moon with a surprisingly low error using nothing more than a meter stick, a piece of cardboard and a program meant for fitting curves to variable stars.

This method makes use of the fact that the eccentricity can be determined from the ratio of the mean angular size of an object and one half of its amplitude. Thus, the main objective is to measure these two quantities.

Kevin’s strategy for doing this is to make use of a cardboard sighting hole which can slide along a meter stick. By peering through the hole at the moon, and sliding the card back and forth until the angular size of the hole just overlaps the moon. From there, the diameter of the hole divided by the distance down the meter stick gives the angular size thanks to the small angle formula (? = d/D in radians if D >> d).

To prevent systematic errors in misjudging as the card is slid forward until the size of the hole matches the moon, it is best to also approach it from the other direction; Coming from in from the far end of the meter stick. This should help reduce errors and in Kevin’s attempt, he found that he had a typical spread of ± 4 mm when doing so.

At this point, there is still another systematic error that must be taken into account: The pupil has a finite size comparable to the sighting hole. This will cause the actual angular size to be underestimated. As such, a correction factor is necessary.

To derive this correction factor, Kevin placed a 91 mm disk at a distance of 10 meters (this should produce a disk with the same angular size as the moon when viewed from that distance). To produce the best match, the slip of cardboard with the sighting hole should need to be placed at 681.3 mm on the meter stick, but due to the systematic error of the pupil, Kevin found it needed to be placed at 821 mm. The ratio of the observed placement to the proper placement provided the correction factor Kevin used (1.205). This would need to be calibrated for each individual person and would also depend on the amount of light during the time of observation since this also affects the diameter of the pupil. However, adopting a single correction factor produces satisfactory results.

This allows for properly taken data which can then be used to determine the necessary quantities (the mean angular size and 1/2 the amplitude). To determine these, Kevin used a program known as PERDET which is designed for fitting sinusoid curves to oscillations in variable stars. Any program that could fit such curves to data points using a ?2 fit or a Fourier analysis would be suitable to this end.

From such programs once the mean angular size and half amplitude are determined, their ratio provides the eccentricity. For Kevin’s experiment, he found a value of 0.039 ± 0.006. Additionally, the period he determined from perigee to perigee was 27.24 ± 0.29 days which is in excellent agreement with the accepted value of 27.55 days.

Galaxy Zoo is Expanding to Include a Whole New “Zooniverse”

Galaxy Zoo has been an enormously successful citizen science project; so much so, that other astronomers, as well as scientists from other disciplines, have taken notice and now they want to get in on the act of having the public help make discoveries about our world and Universe. Today, the Galaxy Zoo team has launched Zooniverse. This new website will be a platform, or “home” to a plethora of new science projects where the public can take their pick of where and how they can make meaningful contributions and discoveries.

Zooniverse became inevitable around the time that Galaxy Zoo launched in 2007,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse, “because it was obvious a few hours into the first day that we had hit on a way of doing science that was really powerful. And it was clear that this was not only going to work with for galaxies, but for other science as well. Soon we’ll we have solar investigations, climate science, and a lot of other citizen science projects coming online.”

For those “Zooites” who love Galaxy Zoo – don’t worry, that project isn’t going anywhere.

“Galaxy Zoo itself will remain the sort of comfortable old sofa in the corner,” Lintott told Universe Today, “so anyone who is comfortable with that can remain sitting there, classifying galaxies and discovering things. But for people who want to explore a bit further and find new and exciting places to be, we’re going to expand the Zooniverse by pointing some new data to the sofa.”

On Dec. 16 an astrophysics project will be introduced in Beta to people already involved in Galaxy Zoo and the offshoot projects: Galaxy Zoo 2, Supernova Hunt, and Galaxy Mergers. If all goes well, it will be launched “live” to the public early 2010.

With new advanced instruments and ways of gathering data, scientists in almost all disciplines are inundated with data but don’t have an efficient way to sort through, organize and classify the information. Galaxy Zoo’s success (over 51 million classifications by over 250,000 people, as well as new discoveries and several science papers published) has attracted the attention of other scientists, many who have contacted Lintott and his team, wondering if there was any way they could use that same model to have the public help with other unique science tasks.

Lintott said they have a long list of additional projects that are already under development. “In a couple of years’ time we should have some wonderful projects come online, such as studying ancient artifacts, oceanography projects, looking at Earth from space, animal behavior projects, and more. We keep getting new really great projects contacting us all the time.”

“We’ve known this has been coming for years, but we didn’t really know how to do it,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of the Zooniverse site, who has been working on how to integrate other science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model. “We needed a big project to come along that wasn’t dealing with galaxies to actually get us pointed in the right direction. The technical challenge was to make the Zooniverse a nice place to be, and to make it easy for users to move between the different ‘Zoos.'”

If you are registered on Galaxy Zoo, you’ll notice you can now access and seamlessly move between Galaxy Zoo, the Mergers and Supernova Hunt sites without re-logging in. The same will hold true for the new science projects that will be coming online on the Zooniverse in the coming months and years.

“There’s an opportunity here for people to explore a range of citizen science projects,” said Smith. “Zooniverse will be a place where people can check to see what projects they might want to work on.”

“The common thread is that each project needs the public’s help to increase our understanding of the Universe, and each will produce results that could not happen without the public,” said Lintott. “Soon, there should be a science project for everyone’s interests.”

Lintott said Universe Today readers will have to wait a little while to see what they actually are, but we will definitely keep everyone updated on the new citizen science projects as they become available.

Alongside the Zooniverse, another new website, Citizen Science Alliance, has been launched for the organizations who will be coming to the Zooniverse. “The Citizen Science Alliance involves our partners,” said Lintott, “and all of us believe that making use the public’s skills, talents and energy is not only helpful in dealing with the flood of data confronting us, but it is necessary.”

Source: interview with Chris Lintott and Arfon Smith

Reaching Near Space For Less Than $150


A group of MIT students have launched a low-budget satellite to near space, taking images of the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space. Their approach was to use low tech, off the shelf equipment, which included a Styrofoam beer cooler, a camera from eBay, open source software and an inexpensive helium balloon as the launch vehicle in order to do their complete mission launch for less than $150. Total cost? $148. The experience? Priceless, including getting interviewed on CNN and Fox News about their achievement. The best news for the rest of us? They’ll soon be sharing an illustrated step-by-step guide on how to launch your own low-budget satellite.

The team, led by Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh had the goal of seeing Earth from space, but didn’t have a lot of money to do it. They knew they’d have to gather all the materials for less than $150.
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Their satellite was a huge success. It reached 93,000 feet (calculated from the linear ascent rate at the beginning of the launch), took several images of Earth from space (see their gallery here) and was retrieved using an inexpensive GPS system.

They say the time lapse video above isn’t all that great because the cooler wasn’t stabilized. But the images are incredible.

Many people have launched balloons (see some of our previous articles, here and here) but this is the lowest price to space anyone has ever accomplished. The students say they hope to be an inspiration to others.

The balloon falling back to Earth after bursting.  Credit:  1337arts team.
The balloon falling back to Earth after bursting. Credit: 1337arts team.

Lee and Yeh caution about making sure future explorers contact the FAA about launching a balloon, and to launch from a safe place so the balloon and equipment doesn’t land in a highly populated area.

Next, they want to do it again, but add a rocket to the balloon to launch their payload even higher.

Check out their website for more info and the great images.

Create Your Own Galaxy Mashup With New Galaxy Zoo Tool

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If you haven’t yet succumbed to the temptation of Galaxy Zoo, a new add-on to the popular citizen scientist project just might catapult you into joining the thousands of people who are clicking and classifying. Galaxy Zoo has now teamed up with Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope to allow users to immerse themselves in the universe and be able to easily create videos and sky tours that can be customized and shared with friends and family. “Now there is an easy way to inflict your favorites on others,” said Galaxy Zoo team member Dr. Pamela Gay.

The new Sky Tour tool, available here was created by two of Gay’s students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, sophomores Jarod Luebbert and Mark Sands.

On Galaxy Zoo, the Zooites work with isolated images of galaxies to classify them by shape and other features. Coordinating with WWT allows users to see the galaxies in their home environments on the sky. “It’s so easy to classify a few hundred — or even a few thousand galaxies and think you’ve seen a reasonable chunk in the sky,” Gay told Universe Today. “But then you start looking at them in WWT and realize each galaxy is just a pinhead of light in a vast, vast sky. Jarod and Mark’s work really gives us a since of scale and how small we all are.”

To give you a taste of how this interface works, Luebbert and Sands created a great teaser video.

Galaxy Zoo – WorldWide Telescope Mashup! from Galaxy Zoo on Vimeo.

(The music on the video is great! Even though the video says “Starts Tomorrow,” tomorrow has now arrived, and the Sky Tour tool is available to use.)

GZ users need to classify at least 100 galaxies before the Sky Tour tool works with their “favorites.”

Tours can be created and customized with music, pictures, and logos. Other new features include sharing directly to networking sites, and competition with other Galaxy Zoo users.

But how do college students get a chance to work on a project with Microsoft and world class astronomers?

“We knew the job opportunity had become available that they wanted two teammates who would work well together for an excellent and educational project dealing with GalaxyZoo,” Sands told Universe Today. “Jarod and I being close friends, were encouraged to apply for this position by a fellow Zoo team member, Scott Miller. After being hired, we were accepted by the rest of the team and got right to work.”

Gay and Galaxy Zoo founder Chris Lintott presented the two students with a proposal they had sent to Microsoft explaining a very detailed approach to integrating Microsoft WorldWide Telescope with GalaxyZoo.

“The synopsis was simple, and we were to merge the creation of WorldWide Telescope tours with GalaxyZoo user favorites,” Sands said, “as well as implement a WordPress (a popular blogging software) plugin for educators to create WWT tours for podcasts (a project to be released in December). With no strict direction, Pamela allowed us to go wild and be creative with our own ideas.”

The two students began formulating ideas and creating dozens of mockups. Then in July, Sands and Luebbert found themselves arriving at Microsoft Research Building 99 in Redmond, WA collaborating directly with the architects of WorldWide Telescope.

Sands said WWT architect Jonathan Fay and Peter Turcan were readily available to help with the Galaxy Zoo project and were extremely helpful, as well as Kim Rush. Yan Xu from Microsoft worked directly with Gay and Lintott on the GalaxyZoo proposal.

“It was a blast to work with them and they helped us out a lot,” said Luebbert. “Even though the original idea came from Pamela and Chris, Mark and I added our own touches as we went along.”

“Working with Microsoft was an unimaginable experience,” Sands said. “There are some fantastic people who work there and deserve just as much attention as we do. I speak for both of us when I say we had a lot of fun working with them, even if it only lasted two weeks.”

The GZ/WWT integration has received great reviews from the users. “The ability of Galaxy Zoo’s volunteers to find interesting objects never ceases to amaze me,” said Lintott. “I’m looking forward to sitting back and enjoying their tours of the Universe.”

The citizen scientists of Galaxy Zoo have classified more than 100 million classifications galaxies since its launch in July 2007. Additionally, results from users have inspired more than 15 scientific papers to date.

Help Solve the Mystery of Epsilon Aurigae with Citizen Sky

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We’ve written about Epsilon Aurigae before, but this mysterious star is just now beginning to dim, so we wanted to remind everyone that they can be involved in real science and help solve a mystery! The variable star Epsilon Aurigae is now beginning its puzzling transformation that happens every 27 years. “That means the last time Epsilon Aurigae had an eclipse we were all rockin’ big hair and sporting shoulder pads in all of our clothes,” said Rebecca Turner, coordinator for a special project for the IYA organized by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Astronomers can’t figure out why this mysterious star dims on a regular basis, so to help solve the mystery they are calling for assistance from thousands of citizen scientists.

That means you can help contribute to real astronomical research!

Since its discovery in 1821, the supergiant star Epsilon Aurigae has dipped in brightness like clockwork every 27.1 years as it is eclipsed by a very large companion object. But based on the shape of the lightcurve and the spectra that have taken of the system, astronomers can’t figure out what exactly what kind of object is eclipsing the star. Another strange feature of the lightcurve is that there is a slight brightening in the middle of the eclipse.

“The leading theory is that the secondary is surrounded by a large opaque disk,” said Turner, on the July 7 episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. “This would explain why light from the secondary doesn’t seem to be showing up in spectra. The disk seems to have a hole in the center, which would account for the mid-eclipse brightening. Current thinking is that perhaps the center of the disk is home to 2 less luminous, tightly orbiting stars. This tight orbit could create what astronomers are calling a gravitational eggbeater effect – creating that hole in the disk. Theories of a large planet falling into the stars at the center of the disk have also been introduced recently.”

Sky map of Epsilon Aurigae
Sky map of Epsilon Aurigae

Epsilon Aurigae is a bright star that can be seen with the unaided eye even in bright urban areas of the Northern Hemisphere from fall to spring. But it is also too bright for most professional telescopes to observe, so this is where the public comes in.

“It’s not just amateurs with fancy telescopes and CCDs or photoelectric photometers that are needed for this experiment,” said AAVSO’s Mike Simonsen. “People with just their eyes or a pair of binoculars can contribute to understanding this weird star by observing epsilon Aurigae over the next two years and reporting their observations to AAVSO.”

A diagram of the most popular model of the epsilon Aurigae system, by Jeff Hopkins:
A diagram of the most popular model of the epsilon Aurigae system, by Jeff Hopkins:

For this project, a new website has been launched called “Citizen Sky”, and all you need are a good pair of eyes, and a finder chart, which can be found on the website. No previous astronomical experience is necessary.

The project is supported by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to recruit, train, and coordinate public participation in this project. What makes this project different from previous citizen science projects is its emphasis on participation in the full scientific method. Participants are not being asked simply to collect data. They will also be trained to analyze data, create and test their own hypotheses, and to write papers for publication in professional astronomy journals. Participants can work alone on all phases of the project or they can focus on one stage and team up with others.

Epsilon Aurigae is just now beginning to dim. It will remain faint during all of 2010 before slowly regaining its normal brightness by the summer of 2011.

The lead astronomer for this project is Dr. Robert Stencel, the William Herschel Womble Professor of Astronomy at Denver University. Dr. Bob, as the amateur astronomy community knows him, studied the last event in 1982-84 while working at NASA. “This is truly an amazing star system. It contains both a supergiant star and a mysterious companion. If the supergiant was in our solar system, its diameter would extend to Earth, engulfing us,” Stencel said. “The companion only makes its presence known every 27 years and is a type of ‘dark matter’ in that we indirectly detect its presence but don’t know what it is.

“To make things even more fun, we also have some evidence of a substantial mass, perhaps a large planet, spiraling into the mysterious dark companion object. Observations during the upcoming eclipse will be key to understanding this and predicting what will happen if the putative planet does eventually fall into the star,” Dr. Bob added.

Here’s a video with Rebecca Turner explaining more about Citizen Sky.

For more on Epsilon Aurigae, see this page from AAVSO
Citizen Sky

Sources: 365 Days of Astronomy,

Hunt for Supernovae With Galaxy Zoo

How would you like to find a supernova? I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be proud to say they have spotted an exploding star. And now, perhaps you can – and without all the work of setting up your telescope and staying up all night (well, that can be fun, too, but…). The great folks who brought you Galaxy Zoo have now partnered with the Palomar Transient Factory to offer the public a chance to hunt and click for supernovae from the comfort of your own computer. And yes, you can still classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, but now you can search for for the big guns out in space, too. Sound like fun?

The Palomar Transient Facory uses the famous Palomar Observatory and the Samuel Oschin 1.2 m telescope to look for anything that’s changing in the sky — whether it’s a variable star, an asteroid moving across the sky, the flickering of an active galaxy’s nucleus or a supernova. For now, though, the partnership with Galaxy Zoo will concentrate on finding supernovae, and in particular Type 1A supernovae.

According to Scott Kardel of the Palomar Observatory, “the quantity and quality of the new data that’s been coming in are absolutely mind blowing for astronomers working in this field. On one recent night PTF patrolled a section of the sky about five times the size of the Big Dipper and found eleven new objects.” For the supernova search, it returns to the same galaxies twice a night, every five nights.

That’s where the Zooites from Galaxy Zoo come in: searching through all specially chosen PTF data and looking for supernovae.

“Your task is to search through the candidates found by PTF” said the Galaxy Zoo team. “Waiting for your results are two intrepid Oxford astronomers, Mark and Sarah, who have travelled out to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the Canary Island of La Palma. They have time allocated on the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope to follow up the best of our discoveries.”

Check out Galaxy Zoo’s Supernova page for more info and to sign up to be part of this exciting new Citizen Science project!

For more info on the Palomar Transient Factory, listen to Scott Kardel’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.