Over the years, members of the public have regularly made exciting discoveries and meaningful contributions to the scientific process through citizen science projects. These citizen scientists sometimes mine large datasets for cosmic treasures, uncovering unknown objects such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, or other times bring an unusual phenomenon to scientists’ attention, such as the discovery of the new aurora-like spectacle called STEVE. Whatever the project, the advent of citizen science projects has changed the nature of scientific engagement between the public and the scientific community.
Now, unusual brown dwarf stars discovered by citizen scientists will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope, with the hopes of learning more about these rare objects. Excitingly, one of the citizen scientists has been named as a co-investigator on a winning Webb proposal.
AI is often touted as being particularly good at finding patterns amongst reams of data. But humans also are extremely good at pattern recognition, especially when it comes to visual images. Citizen science efforts around the globe leverage this fact, and recent results released from the Milky Way Project on Zooinverse show how effective it can be. The project’s volunteer team identified 6,176 “yellowballs”, which are a stage that star clusters go through during their early years. That discovery helps scientists better understand the formation of these clusters and how they eventually grow into individualized stars.
Zooniverse brings out the best of the internet – it leverages the skills of average people to perform scientific feats that would be impossible otherwise. One of the tasks that a Zooniverse project called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has been working on has now resulted in a paper cataloguing 525 brown dwarfs, including 38 never before documented ones.
It looks like a poster of the famous Hubble Deep Field, marked with white streaks by a child, or put away carelessly and scratched in the process. But it’s not. The white streaks aren’t accidents; they’re the paths of asteroids.
A concentrated three-day search for a mysterious, unseen planet in the far reaches of our own solar system has yielded four possible candidates. The search for the so-called Planet 9 was part of a real-time search with a Zooniverse citizen science project, in coordination with the BBC’s Stargazing Live broadcast from the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory.
Researcher Brad Tucker from ANU, who led the effort, said about 60,000 people from around the world classified over four million objects during the three days, using data from the SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring. He and his team said that even if none of the four candidates turn out to be the hypothetical Planet 9, the effort was scientifically valuable, helping to verify their search methods as exceptionally viable.
“We’ve detected minor planets Chiron and Comacina, which demonstrates the approach we’re taking could find Planet 9 if it’s there,” Tucker said. “We’ve managed to rule out a planet about the size of Neptune being in about 90 per cent of the southern sky out to a depth of about 350 times the distance the Earth is from the Sun.
Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet when they found that the orbits of several different Kuiper Belt Objects were likely being influenced by a massive body, located out beyond the orbit of Pluto, about 200 times further than the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This planet would be Neptune-sized, roughly 10 times more massive than Earth. But the search is difficult because the object is likely 1000 times fainter than Pluto.
The search has been on, with many researchers working on both new observations and sifting through old data. This recent project used archival data from the Skymapper Telescope.
“With the help of tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers sifting through hundreds of thousands of images taken by SkyMapper,” Tucker said, “we have achieved four years of scientific analysis in under three days. One of those volunteers, Toby Roberts, has made 12,000 classifications.”
Mike Brown chimed in on Twitter that he thought this concentrated search was a great idea:
Tucker said he and his team at ANU will work to confirm whether or not the unknown space objects are Planet 9 by using telescopes at Siding Spring and around the world, and he encouraged people to continue to hunt for Planet 9 through Zooniverse project, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.
Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.
One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.
This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).
While similar-looking ridges can be found in many places on Mars, they do not appear to be formed by any single process. As Laura Kerber, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the survey report, explained in a NASA press release:
“Finding these ridges in the Medusae Fossae region set me on a quest to find all the types of polygonal ridges on Mars… Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars. Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground.”
Such ridges have also been found on Earth, and appear to be the result of various processes as well. One of the most common involves lava flowing into preexisting fractures in the ground, which then survived when erosion stripped the surrounding material away. A good example of this is the Shiprock (shown above), a monadrock located in San Juan County, New Mexico.
Examples of polygon ridges on Mars include the feature known as “Garden City“, which was discovered by the Curiosity rover mission. Measuring just a few centimeters in height, these ridges appeared to be the result of mineral-laden groundwater moving through underground fissures, which led to standing mineral veins once the surrounding soil eroded away.
At the other end of the scale, ridges that measure around 2 kilometers (over a mile) high have also been found. A good example of this is “Inca City“, a feature observed by the Mars Global Surveyor near Mars’ south pole. In this case, the feature is believed to be the result of underground faults (which were formed from impacts) filling with lava over time. Here too, erosion gradually stripped away the surrounding rock, exposing the standing lava rock.
In short, these features are evidence of underground water and volcanic activity on Mars. And by finding more examples of these polygon-ridges, scientists will be able to study the geological record of Mars more closely. Hence why Kerber is seeking help from the public through a citizen-science project called Planet Four: Ridges.
Established earlier this month on Zooniverse – a volunteer-powered research platform – this project has made images obtained by the MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) available to the public. Currently, this and other projects using data from CTX and HiRISE have drawn the participation of more than 150,000 volunteers from around the world.
By getting volunteers to sort through the CTX images for ridge formations, Kerber and her team hopes that previously-unidentified ones will be identified and that their relationship with other Martian features will be better understood.
We’ve been watching Mars with spacecraft for about 50 years, but there’s still so little we know about the Red Planet. Take this sequence of images in this post recently taken by a powerful camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Spring arrives in the southern hemisphere and produces a bunch of mysteries, such as gray-blue streaks you can see in a picture below.
That’s where citizen scientists can come in, according to a recent post for the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera that took these pictures. They’re asking people with a little spare time to sign up for Planet Four (a Zooniverse project) to look at mysterious Mars features. With amateurs and professionals working together, maybe we’ll learn more about these strange changes you see below.
Zooniverse — the renowned home of citizen science projects — is now one million strong. That’s one million registered volunteers since the project began less than seven years ago.
It all began when Galaxy Zoo launched in July 2007. The initial response to this project was overwhelming. Since then the Zooniverse team has created almost 30 citizen science projects ranging from astronomy to zoology.
“We are constantly amazed by the effort that the community puts into our projects,” said the Zooniverse team in an email regarding the news late last week.
Many projects have produced unique scientific results, ranging from individual discoveries to classifications that rely on input from thousands of volunteers. As of today there are 60+ papers listed on the websites publications page, many of which have made the news.
In the first two weeks after Galaxy Zoo’s launch, registered citizen scientists classified more than a million galaxies. Each volunteer was presented with an image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and asked to classifiy the galaxy as belonging to one of six categories: elliptical, clockwise spiral, anticlockwise spiral, edge-on, merger, or unsure.
But citizen scientists weren’t simply labeling galaxies, they were helping astronomers to answer crucial questions and raise new ones about our current understandings of galaxy evolution. One significant finding showed that bar-shaped features in spiral galaxies has doubled over the latter half of the history of the Universe. This confirms that bars signify maturity in spiral galaxies and play an important role in shutting down star formation.
Another finding downplayed the importance of collisions in forming supermassive black holes. Citizen scientists found 13 bulgeless galaxies — suggesting they had never experienced a major collision — with supermassive black holes, nonetheless. All healthy black holes, with masses at least millions of times that of the Sun, must have grown through less dramatic processes.
Planet Hunters — a citizen science project developed in 2010 — has also seen wide success. Ordinary citizens examine the Kepler Space Telescope’s light curves of stars and flag any slight dips in brightness that might indicate a planet crossing in front of the star. Many eyes examine each light curve, allowing some to cross check others.
In roughly three years, citizen scientists examined more than 19 million Kepler light curves. Contrary to what many astronomers expected, ordinary citizens were able to spot transiting objects that many computer algorithms missed.
In 2012, Planet Hunter volunteers, Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano discovered an exoplanet in a four-star system. The Neptune-size planet, labeled “Planet Hunters 1” (PH1), orbits its two parent stars every 138 days. A second pair of stars, approximately 90 billion miles away, are also gravitationally bound to the system. This wacky system was later confirmed by professional astronomers.
In 2013, Planet Hunter volunteers discovered yet another planet candidate, which, if confirmed, would make a known six-planet system really the first seven-planet system. The five innermost planets are smaller than Neptune, while the two outer planets are gas giants. All orbit within Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
These are only a few of Zooniverse’s citizen science projects. Others allow ordinary citizens to help analyze how whales communicate with one another, study the lives of the ancient Greeks, and even look at real life cancer data. So join today and become number one million and one.
Zooniverse is produced by the Citizen Science Alliance, which works with many academic and other partners worldwide.
Growing up, my sister played video games and I read books. Now that she has a one-year-old daughter we constantly argue over how her little girl should spend her time. Should she read books in order to increase her vocabulary and stretch her imagination? Or should she play video games in order to strengthen her hand-eye coordination and train her mind to find patterns?
I like to believe that I did so well in school because of my initial unadorned love for books. But I might be about to lose that argument as gamers prove their value in science and more specifically astronomy.
Take a quick look through Zooniverse and you’ll be amazed by the number of Citizen Science projects. You can explore the surface of the moon in Moon Zoo, determine how galaxies form in Galaxy Zoo and search for Earth-like planets in Planet Hunters.
In 2011 two citizen scientists made big news when they discovered two exoplanet candidates — demonstrating that human pattern recognition can easily compliment the powerful computer algorithms created by the Kepler team.
But now we’re introducing yet another Citizen Science project: Disk Detective.
Planets form and grow within dusty circling planes of gas that surround young stars. However, there are many outstanding questions and details within this process that still elude us. The best way to better understand how planets form is to directly image nearby planetary nurseries. But first we have to find them.
“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, James Garvin, in a press release.
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) scanned the entire sky at infrared wavelengths for a year. It took detailed measurements of more than 745 million objects.
Astronomers have used complex computer algorithms to search this vast amount of data for objects that glow bright in the infrared. But now they’re calling on your help. Not only do planetary nurseries glow in the infrared but so do galaxies, interstellar dust clouds and asteroids.
While there’s likely to be thousands of planetary nurseries glowing bright in the data, we have to separate them from everything else. And the only way to do this is to inspect every single image by eye — a monumental challenge for any astronomer — hence the invention of Disk Detective.
Brief animations allow the user to help classify the object based on relatively simple criteria, such as whether or not the object is round or if there are multiple objects.
“Disk Detective’s simple and engaging interface allows volunteers from all over the world to participate in cutting-edge astronomy research that wouldn’t even be possible without their efforts,” said Laura Whyte, director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.
The project is hoping to find two types of developing planetary environments, distinguished by their age. The first, known as a young stellar object disk is, well, young. It’s less than 5 million years old and contains large quantities of gas. The second, known as a debris disk, is older than 5 million years. It contains no gas but instead belts of rocky or icy debris similar to our very own asteroid and Kupier belts.
So what are you waiting for? Head to Disk Detective and help astronomers understand how complex worlds form in dusty disks of gas. The book will be there when you get back.
Planetary Resources Inc. — that company that is developing a crowdsourced space telescope to search for asteroids — is planning to work on “crowdsourced software solutions” to make it easier to find asteroids and other near-Earth objects, using NASA-funded data.
NASA announced that Planetary Resources will receive a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement to help NASA characterize near-Earth objects. It’s the first initiative announced under NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, which the agency announced this summer as a vehicle to find threats to Earth.
NASA’s role will be to “develop and manage” the contest, while Planetary Resources is expected to “facilitate the use of NASA-funded sky survey data and help support the algorithm competition and review results,” the agency stated.