New Galaxy Zoo Project Crowd-sources Old Climate Data

The newest citizen science project from the Galaxy Zoo team lets the public travel back in time and join the crews of over 280 different World War I royal navy warships. While an engaging historical journey, the project will help scientists better understand the climate of the past. There are gaps in weather and climate data records, particularly before 1920, prior to when weather station observations were accurately recorded. But old naval ships routinely recorded the weather they encountered – marking down temperatures and conditions even while in battle. The information in many of these weather logbooks has not been utilized – until now, as the “Old Weather” project has made its debut as the newest way for the public to contribute in scientific research.

The project is designed to provide a detailed map of the world’s climate around 100 years ago, which will help tell us more about the climate today. Anyone can take part, read the logs, follow events aboard the vessels and contribute to this fun and historical project, which could tell us more about our climate’s future.

“These naval logbooks contain an amazing treasure trove of information but because the entries are handwritten they are incredibly difficult for a computer to read,’ said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, a Galaxy Zoo founder and developer of the OldWeather.org project. “By getting an army of online human volunteers to retrace these voyages and transcribe the information recorded by British sailors we can relive both the climate of the past and key moments in naval history.”

By transcribing information about weather, and any interesting events, from images of each ship’s logbook web volunteers will help scientists to build a more accurate picture of how our climate has changed over the last century, as well as adding to our knowledge of this important period of British history.

HMS Acacia, one of the ships in the Old Weather project.

“Historical weather data is vital because it allows us to test our models of the Earth’s climate,”said Dr. Peter Stott, Head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the British meteorology, or Met Office. “If we can correctly account for what the weather was doing in the past, then we can have more confidence in our predictions of the future. Unfortunately, the historical record is full of gaps, particularly from before 1920 and at sea, so this project is invaluable.”

Weather observations by Royal Navy sailors were made every four hours without fail, said Dr. Robert Simpson of Oxford University, who added that this project is almost like “launching a weather satellite into the skies at a time when manpowered flight was still in its infancy.”

What is Old Weather from National Maritime Museum on Vimeo.

If you are not yet familiar yet with the Zooniverse, which includes citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo, you are really missing out on a fun and engaging way to do actual, meaningful science. In those projects, 320,000 people have made over 150 million classifications and published several scientific papers – which shown that ordinary web users can make observations that are as accurate as those made by experts.

Old Weather is unique among the eight scientific projects encompassed by the Zooniverse because of how old the data is, and participating really is a trip back in time. The ‘virtual sailors’ visiting OldWeather.org are rewarded for their efforts by a rise through the ratings from cadet to captain of a particular ship according to the number of pages they transcribe. Historians are also hoping that a look into these old records will provide a fresh insight into naval history and encourage people to find out more about the past.

Here’s a tutorial on how to participate in Old Weather:

Old Weather – Getting Started from The Zooniverse on Vimeo.

To find out more, and participate visit OldWeather.org. There’s also an Old Weather blog at http://blogs.zooniverse.org/oldweather

You can also follow the project on Twitter (@OldWeather) and Facebook.

Follow-up Studies on June 3rd Jupiter Impact

Color image of impact on Jupiter on June 3, 2010. Credit: Anthony Wesley

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Poor Jupiter just can’t seem to catch a break. Ever since 1994, when our largest planet was hit by Comet Shoemaker-Levy, detections of impacts on Jupiter have occurred with increasing regularity. Most recently, an impact was witnessed on August 20. On June 3rd of 2010, (coincidentally the same day pictures from Hubble were released from a 2009 impact) Jupiter was hit yet again. Shortly after the June 3rd impact, several other telescopes joined the observing.

A paper to appear in the October issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters discusses the science that has been gained from these observations.

The June 3rd impact was novel in several respects. It was the first unexpected impact that was reported from two independent locations simultaneously. Both discoverers were observing Jupiter with aims of engaging in a bit of astrophotography. Their cameras were both set to take a series of quick images, each lasting a fifth to a tenth of a second. This short time duration is the first time astronomers have had the ability to recreate the light curve for the meteor. Additionally, both observers were using different filters (one red and one blue) allowing for exploration of the color distribution.

Analysis of the light curve revealed that the flash lasted nearly two seconds and was not symmetric; The decay in brightness occurred faster than the increase at onset. Additionally, the curve showed several distinct “bumps” which indicated a flickering that is commonly seen on meteors on Earth.

The light released in the burning up of the object was used to estimate the total energy-released and in turn the mass of the object.  The total energy released was estimated to be between roughly (1.0–4.0) × 1015 Joules (or 250–1000 kilotons).

Follow-up observations from Hubble three days later revealed no scars from the impact. In the July 2009 impact, a hole punched in the clouds remained for several days. This indicated the object in the June 3 impact was considerably smaller and burned up before it was able to reach the visible cloud decks.

Observations intended to find debris came up empty. Infrared observations showed that no thermal signature was left even as little as 18 hours following the discovery.

Assuming that the object was an asteroid with a relative speed of ~60 km/sec and a density of ~2 g/cm3, the team estimated the size of the object to be between 8 and 13 meters, similar to the size of the two asteroids that recently passed Earth. This represents the smallest meteor yet observed on Jupiter. An object of similar size was estimated to be responsible for the impact on Earth in 1994 near the Marshall Islands. Estimates “predict objects of this size to collide with our planet every 6–15 years” with significantly higher rates on Jupiter ranging from one to one hundred such events annually.

Clearly, amateur observations led to some fantastic science. Modest telescopes, “in the range 15–20 cm in diameter equipped with webcams and video recorders” can easily allow for excellent coverage of Jupiter and continued observation could help in determining the impact rate and lead to a better understanding of the population of such small bodies in the outer solar system.

Tumbling Boulders Leave Trails on the Moon

mages from Moon Zoo showing trails from tumbling boulders in the Montes Alpes/Vallis Alpes region on the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO/Moon Zoo.

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There’s probably a great story in this image, if only someone was there to witness it as it happened! This is an image from Moon Zoo, the citizen science project from the Zooniverse that asks people to look at images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and search for craters, boulders and more. And often, the Zooites find some very interesting features on the Moon, like this one and the ones below that include tracks from rolling, bounding, tumbling and sometimes bouncing boulders. Then the task for the scientists is to figure out what actually happened to get these boulders moving — was it an impact, are the boulder on the bottom of a hill, or was it some other unknown catalyst? As Zooniverse founder Chris Lintott says, “The Moon has its own landscape that is really quite dramatic, so it’s a world well worth exploring.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo.

Why look for tumbling boulders? Moon Zoo scientist Dr. Katie Joy gave this explanation:

“One of the main reasons we are asking Moon Zoo users to search for scars left behind by tumbling boulders is to help support future lunar exploration initiatives. Boulders that have rolled down hillsides from crater walls, or massifs like the Apollo 17 landing site, provide samples of geologic units that may be high up a hillside and thus difficult to access otherwise by a rover or a manned crew vehicle. If mission planning can include traverses to boulders that have rolled down hills, and we can track these boulders back up to the part of hillside from where they have originated, it provides a neat sampling strategy to accessing more geological units than would have been possible otherwise… Thus we hope to use Moon Zoo user data to produce a map of known boulder tracks (and terminal boulders) across the Moon.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo of boulder tracks.

See more unique boulder tracks images in the Moon Zoo forum thread on boulders.

If you want to join in on the fun of looking for mysteries on the Moon, check out Moon Zoo, or the Zooniverse for more citizen science projects where you can get involved in helping scientists do real science.

New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch

A Coronal Mass Ejection. Credit: 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

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

Possible future landing site on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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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