The age of big data is upon us, and there are scarcely any fields of scientific research that are not affected. Take astronomy, for example. Thanks to cutting-edge instruments, software, and data-sharing, observatories worldwide are accumulating hundreds of terabytes in a single day and between 100 to 200 Petabytes a year. Once next-generation telescopes become operational, astronomy will likely enter the “exabyte era,” where 1018 bytes (one quintillion) of data are obtained annually. To keep up with this volume, astronomers are turning to machine learning and AI to handle the job of analysis.
While AI plays a growing role in data analysis, there are some instances where citizen astronomers are proving more capable. While examining data collected by the Dark Energy Survey (DES), amateur astronomer Giuseppe Donatiello discovered three faint galaxies that a machine-learning algorithm had apparently missed. These galaxies, all satellites of the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253), are now named Donatello II, III, and IV, in his honor. In this day of data-driven research, it’s good to know that sometimes there’s no substitute for human eyeballs and intellect.
It’s been a banner time for black hole research! In recent months, astrophysicists have announced the discovery of the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever recorded (due to the formation of a black hole), a monster black hole in our cosmic backyard, the frame-dragging effects of a binary black hole, and the remains of the 2017 Kilonova event (spoiler alert: it was a black hole). And with the help of citizen scientists, a team of astronomers recently discovered a unique black hole in a galaxy roughly one billion light-years away that’s hurling a relativistic jet at another galaxy.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found over 5000 candidate exoplanet candidates, and 197 confirmed exoplanets since its mission began in late 2018. TESS is good at finding exoplanets, but the spacecraft is a powerful scientific platform, and it’s made other discoveries, too. Scientists working with TESS recently announced 97 quadruple star candidates, nearly doubling the number of known quadruple systems.
A renewed era of space exploration is underway. Compared to the Space Race of the 20th century, which was characterized by two superpowers locked in a game of “getting there first”, the new era is defined predominantly by cooperation and open participation. One way in which this is evident is the role played by “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers in exploration missions.
Consider the recently-released short film titled “A Journey to Jupiter” by Peter Rosen – a photographer and digital artist in Stockholm, Sweden. Using over 1000 images taken by amateur planetary photographers from around the world, this film takes viewers on a virtual journey to the Jovian planet, showcasing its weather patterns and dynamic nature in a way that is truly inspiring.
The images that went into making this video were collected by over 91 amateur astronomers over the course of three and a half months (between December 19th, 2014 and March 31st, 2015). After Rosen collected them, he and his associates (Christoffer Svenske and Johan Warell) then spent a year remapping them into cylindrical projections. Rosen then added color corrections, and stitched all the images into a total of 107 maps.
Much like fast-motion videos that illustrate weather patterns on Earth, or the passage of the stars across the night sky, the end result of was a film that shows the motions of Jupiter’s cloud belts and its Great Red Spot in high-resolution. Some 250 revolutions of the planet are illustrated, including from the equatorial band, the south pole, and the north pole.
As Rosen told Universe Today via email, this project was the latest in a lifelong pursuit of making astronomy accessible to the public:
“I have been into Astronomy since I was a teenager in the early 1970’s and immediately I got a passion for astrophotography, and more specifically, photographing the planets. I see astronomy as a life-long passion, so it is quite normal to strive for an evolution in what you do. I had an idea growing slowly for some years that it should be possible to animate the cloud belts of Jupiter and reveal the intricate dynamics of its flows, not just taking still pictures that might point to the changes in the structures but without the obvious visual dynamics of an animation.”
“A Journey to Jupiter” was also Rosen’s contribution to the Mission Juno Pro-Amateur Collaboration Project, of which he is part. Established by Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this effort is one of several that seeks to connect amateurs and professionals in support of space exploration. Back in May of 2016, this group met in Nice, France, for a workshop dedicated to projects and techniques related to Jupiter observations.
Among other items discussed was the limitations that missions like Juno have to deal with. While it is capable of taking very-high resolution images of Jupiter, these images are highly specific in nature. And before a team of mission scientists are able to color-correct them and stitch them together to create panoramas, etc., they are not always what you might call “visually stunning”.
However, Earth-based observatories are not hampered by this restriction, and can take multiple images of a planet over time that capture it as a whole. And thanks to the availability of sophisticated telescopes and imaging software, amateur astronomers are capable of making important contributions in this regard. And far from these being strictly for scientific purposes, there is also the added benefit of public engagement.
“This has been a very technical and scientifically correct project,” said Rosen, “but as a photographer and digital artist I also wanted to create a work of art that would inspire and appeal to people who are fascinated by the universe but who are not necessarily into astronomy.”
Of course, this does not detract from the scientific value that this film has. For example, it showcases the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere in a way that is scientifically accurate. Hence why Ricardo Hueso Alonso – a physicist at the University of Basque Country and a member of the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) – plans to use the maps to measure Jupiter’s wind speeds at different latitudes.
On top of its artistic and scientific merit, “A Journey to Jupiter” also serves as a testament to the skill and capability of the today’s amateur astronomers and planetary photographers. And of course, it draws attention to the efforts of space missions such as Juno, which is currently skimming the clouds of Jupiter to obtain the most comprehensive information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field to date.
Not surprisingly, this is not the first film by Rosen that combines scientific accuracy and fast-motion visuals. The short film Voyager3, released back in June of 2014, was an homage by Rosen and six other Swedish amateur astronomers to the Voyager 1 mission. As the probe made its 28-day final approach to Jupiter in 1979, it snapped what were the most detailed images of Jupiter at the time.
These images helped to improve our understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, and its moons. Among other things, hey revealed the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and that the Great Red Spot had changed color since the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions had flown by in 1973 and 74. Produced 35 years later, Voyager 3 was an attempt to recreate this historic event using images taken by Swedish amateur astronomers using their own ground-based telescopes.
Over the course of 90 days, Rosen and his colleagues captured one million frames of Jupiter, which resulted in 560 still images of the planet. These were then stitched together using a series of software programs (Winjupos, Photoshop CS6, Fantamorph, and StarryNightPro+) to create a simulation that gives the impression of a probe approaching the planet – i.e. like a third Voyager mission, hence the name of the film.
“As Jupiter was ideally positioned high in the sky in 2013-2014 for us living far up in the northern hemisphere, I decided that it was the right moment to give it a try, so I contacted 6 other amateurs on our local forum that shared my passion for the planets,” Rosen said. “We photographed Jupiter as often as we could during a 3-month period and I took care of the processing of the images which took me a total of 6 months.”
It is an exciting time to be alive. Not only are a greater number of national space agencies taking part in the exploration of the Solar System; but more than ever, citizen scientists, amateurs and members of the general public are able to participate in a way that was never before possible.
To view more work by Peter Rosen, be sure to check out his page at Vimeo.
Being able to witness a solar eclipse is certainly a distinct experience. Even though the spectacle is mostly visual, there can be other effects as well. The air can cool, and observers may notice a decrease in wind speed or a change in wind direction. There might even be an eerie silence.
Experiences like this have been noted for centuries, and famed astronomer Edmund Halley wrote of the ‘Chill and Damp which attended the Darkness’ during an eclipse in 1715, which he noted caused ‘some sense of Horror’ among those who were witnessing the event.
While most people would describe an eclipse as ‘awe-inspiring’ (and not horrifying at all) the atmospheric changes noted by observers over the years has been called the “eclipse wind.” And now, based on the observations of over 4,500 citizen scientists in the UK during the partial eclipse on March 20, 2015, this effect is not just a figment of anyone’s imagination; it is a real phenomenon.
The National Eclipse Weather Experiment (NEWEx) was a UK-wide citizen science project for collecting atmospheric data during that eclipse. Members of the public – including about 200 schools – recorded weather changes such as air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and cloud cover every five minutes during the eclipse. That data, submitted online, was compared with official data from the UK’s Met office observations, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.
“The NEWEx was, as far as we know, a world first, in measuring and analyzing eclipse changes in the weather on a national scale, in close to real time, through engagement of a network of citizen scientists,” wrote researchers Luke Barnard, Giles Harrison, Suzanne Gray and Antonio Portas from the University of Reading, in one of a series of new papers about eclipse meteorology published this week.
The data revealed that not only did the atmosphere cool during the eclipse – which is not surprising since solar radiation is being blocked by the Moon – but the winds and cloud cover also decreased. The cumulative effect is real, not just anecdotal, the team said.
NEWEx collected 15,606 meteorological observations from 309 locations within the UK and from those observations the science team was able to derive estimates of the near-surface air temperature, cloudiness and near-surface wind speed fields across many UK sites. The data submitted by citizen scientists were combined with Met Office surface weather stations and a network of roadside weather sensors that monitor highway conditions. The combination of data helped unravel the centuries-old mystery of the eclipse wind.
From analysis of the data, they found that the wind change is caused by variations to the “boundary layer” – the area of air that usually separates high-level winds from those at the ground.
“There have been lots of theories about the eclipse wind over the years, but we think this is the most compelling explanation yet,” said Harrison in a press release from the University of Reading in the UK. “As the sun disappears behind the moon the ground suddenly cools, just like at sunset. This means warm air stops rising from the ground, causing a drop in wind speed and a shift in its direction, as the slowing of the air by the Earth’s surface changes.”
The measurements from citizen scientists clearly showed temperature drops and a decrease in clouds. The team did note that because of the low velocity of winds and some areas where cloud cover change was small, it was difficult for the participants to make some of the measurements. But the high level of participation across the UK provided enough data for the team to make their conclusions.
“Halley also relied on combining eclipse observations from amateur investigators across Britain. We have continued his approach,” Harrison said.
A total of 16 new papers and reports were published this week in a special ‘eclipse meteorology’ issue of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The special issue is published 301 years after Halley’s report of the eclipse in London in 1715 – and in exactly the same journal.
The team wrote that they hope a similar citizen science effort might take place in August 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America, providing another opportunity to study eclipse-induced meteorology changes.
“NEWEx serves as a useful example of the strengths and challenges of using a citizen science approach to study eclipse-induced meteorological changes, and could provide a template for a similar study for the August 2017 eclipse,” the team said.