Astronomy Needs You!
The age of citizen astronomy and science has arrived and now you can be a part of it right in the comfort of your own home (or wherever you have access to a computer and an internet connection). Below is a list of the Top 10 citizen astronomy projects that armchair astronomers can take part in.
1. Planet Four
This project was launched on the BBC’s Stargazing Live series earlier this year. Each year, the audience are asked to participate in a citizen astronomy effort to help astronomy researchers sort through information on a specific topic.
This year they were looking for volunteers to scour never seen before images from Mars in an effort to identify unusual features or phenomena, particularly Martian fans which are indicative of active geysers on the planet. And, true to form, the audience members who took part did find a few new things on Mars. While computers may be great at crunching numbers, there’s still nothing better for pattern recognition than a real person looking at a picture! By the end of the third night, volunteers had scanned images from an area the size of Holland!
The project is still ongoing. You may not be able to see it from the screenshot, but 65,572 citizen scientists are currently exploring the surface of Mars like never before and they’ve examined 3,418,636 images to date (those numbers will have changed by the time you’re reading this).
Web Address: Planet Four
Your Mission: Study images of Mars to identify new features on the planet that are worthy of further investigation.
Time Investment: Not much time investment needed. You’ll be classifying features in just a few minutes.
2. Galaxy Zoo Mergers
Your task is to try to match one of several galaxy collision simulations to a real target image showing merging galaxies, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, on your screen. Using this information, astronomers hope to get a better understanding of how real galaxies in the Sloan Survey are actually interacting with each other.
There are several added levels of detail that allow you to refine your selection. For example, if the best option doesn’t match your target image closely, you can tweak a few parameters that affect how the galaxies in the simulation merge. This includes the masses of the two galaxies for instance.
There’s a lively and active forum on the site (as is the case with the original GalaxyZoo project). This is a great resource if you find yourself stuck or want to share your discoveries with others.
Web Address: Galaxy Zoo Mergers
Your Mission: Study galaxy merger simulations and match them to real images.
Time Investment: Pretty intense. There’s much more detail to explore here than in some of the other projects ion this page. So it may take you a bit longer to get to grips with it.
The SETI@Home project is probably the longest-running citizen astronomy project on the planet. It harnesses the power of thousands of home PCs around the world to analyze the mountain of data from the Arecibo Radio Telescope. They are searching for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
Web Address: SETI@Home
Your Mission: This uses specialized screensaver software to analyze signal packets that are downloaded to your PC. Beyond installing the software, there’s little more interaction required from you.
Time Investment: Virtually none as the screensaver software runs automatically, downloading and analyzing data, and uploading results without any intervention from you.
4. Globe At Night
This project collects reports from people around the world who have measured their local light pollution levels. You can help out too, by using the charts on the website to estimate just how bright your night sky is. The organizers then compile the reports to create a map of the results.
Web Address: Globe At Night
Your Mission: Go outside at night, count the stars in the constellation of Orion, then report your observations to Globe at Night.
Time Investment: You need to do this under clear skies but it takes just a few minutes to make your estimations and submit your results.
5. Moon Zoo
This involves you identifying and marking craters and other interesting features in high-resolution images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Currently, it’s still in beta (test) stage but it does allow you to have a go at locating craters and submitting your findings.
Web Address: Moon Zoo
Your Mission: Locate and mark craters and other objects of interest in LRO images.
Time Investment: Not much time investment needed. You’ll be classifying objects in just a few minutes.
6. Global Telescope Network
Get involved in the nitty-gritty details of astronomical researchby analyzing CCD images from observatories around the world. You’ll need specialist software like CCDsoft or Maxim DL but your efforts will help support missions sich as the XMM-Newton, Swift and Fermi space telescopes.
Web Address: Global Telescope Network
Your Mission: Get involved doing research alongside professional astronomers.
Time Investment: Pretty time intensive, taking from a few hours to several months, depending on what you’re researching.
7. Galaxy Zoo 2
This is a followup to the original Galaxy Zoo project and refines the search by getting users to investigate even more galaxies. Using the results, professional astronomers hope to gain a better understanding of the appearance and morphology of galaxies.
Web Address: Galaxy Zoo 2
Your Mission: Classify galaxies using your web browser to help astronomers understand more about them.
Time Investment: Not much. You can be up and running and classifying galaxies in a matter of minutes.
8. Solar Stormwatch
This project gives you the chance to help scientists study the Sun by looking out for solar storms in videos sent back by NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft. These solar storms are known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), and they are vast blasts of plasma that are expelled by our Sun.
The whole project runs in your web browser and you’ll need to register before you can actually start studying solar storms. Once you register, you’ll be taken through a series of training tutorials. Here you’ll learn how to recognize CMEs in the STEREO videos, as well as familiarize yourself with the website’s interface. You’ll also learn how to spot things that aren’t solar storms such as high-energy particles striking the cameras and other optical effects.
The website will tell you if you are the first person to see the data. And if you are successful in discovering a solar storm, you may find yourself mentioned alongside your fellow Solar StormWatchers in the “Latest Discover” section on the homepage.
Web Address: Solar Stormwatch
Your Mission: View images and videos from the STEREO probes to try to spot solar storms.
Time Investment: It’ll take about 15 minutes to get started, then about 10 minutes per video. You can spend as much time as you want doing this!
It’s not often that you get to direct the cameras of a NASA spacecraft orbiting another planet, but that’s exactly what you can do courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) HiWish Citizen Science project.
MRO was launched in 2005 and went into orbit around Mars in March 2006. It’s prime mission was to identify landing locations for future Mars missions as well as examining the past and present effect of water on the planet’s surface. It has taken thousands of images in that time.
Now the Lunar and Planetary Institute are taking suggestions from the public as to where MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera should be pointed next. Once you’ve registered, you look at images of the Martian globe in a Google Maps type interface. You scan the surface for targets, selecting them with a tick when done. It’s probably a good idea to read up on Mars in case there’s a specific area of the planet you’d like MRO to target its cameras on. Once you’ve selected your locations, you need to write a scientific note explaining why your imaging idea should be chosen. If you’re successful, the scientists who control the HiRISE camera will take your desired image and upload it to the site.
Web Address: http://www.uahirise.org/hiwish/
Your Mission: Identify areas on Mars and request the MRO HiRISE camera to take images of Mars’ surface.
Time Investment: Bit of time involved. You can suggest several images but you need to provide a scientific rationale for each of them!
In 1999, the Stardust spacecraft was launched into space to rendezvous with Comet Wild 2. When it arrived at the comet, it collected samples of cometary dust in specially designed collectors, which were also used to collect samples of interstellar dust on the way to the comet.
On jan. 15th, 2006, the sample return capsule from the Stardust spacecraft plummeted to a landing in the Utah desert. Just a few months later, scientists called on citizen scientists to help them study the samples by searching for dust particles and the tracks they left in the aerogel collectors. The project is still running.
You need to take a short online test to get you familiar with what you’re looking for. If you pass, you can then register to start searching. You do this by looking at microscope images of the sample sin your web browser. This “virtual microscope” allows you to focus the image at different levels of the sample to look for particles and their tracks. If you spot something, you can flag it up for scientists to have a look at.
Web Address: http://stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu
Your Mission: Study microscope images to search for interstellar dust and any tracks it might have left.
Time Investment: Some time required. After the initial training and entrance test, studying 2 or 3 frames takes around 5-10 minutes.
Other Projects Worthy of Mention
While the projects listed below didn’t make it into the Top 10, they are still worthy of mention. Some are relatively new or in bet (test) stage and may eventually displace one of the existing Top 10 projects listed above:
Once you download the software from their website, MilkyWay@Home uses your computer to process data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The results are then used to create a 3D models of streams of stars in and around our Milky Way galaxy.
Web Address: MilkyWay@Home
Your Mission: The software works as a screensaver in much the same way as SETI@Home. It’s set-it-and-forget-it software.
Time Investment: Only requires time to install but you’ll be helping to do real science!
Not strictly a citizen astronomy project, Astrometry.net aims to create a calibrated, searchable archive of astronomy photographs. Upload your images to its Flickr group and the service tells you where their field of view is on the sky and the objects shown in them.
Web Address: Astrometry.net
Your Mission: You’ll need to have taken images of the night sky and upload them to find out their celestial co-ordinates and what they show.
Time Investment: Requires a little time and takes anywhere from a few hours to about a day. Plus the time you spend on your astrophotography.
They’re hoping to build projects and programs that will help search the vast amounts of data being gathered as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
At the moment, SETI Quest is only looking for help from software developers, but a citizen science project is in the works.
Web Address: SETI Quest
Your Mission: Use your programming skills to help SETI scientists sift through data.
Time Investment: This will vary greatly, depending on which projects you get involved in.
Be a Martian
Map the Martian surface and count craters in this fun citizen science project from NASA. The activities are suitable for young and old alike, but you will need to install Microsoft Silverlight software first.
Web Address: Be a Martian
Your Mission: YCount craters and map parts of Mars using images from NASA probes.
Time Investment: There are two different tasks – mapping and counting craters. Each typically takes around 15-20 minutes.
Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt For Supernovae
Another web-based project gets you searching for exploding stars in images taken at the Palomar Observatory in California. You’ll be presented with three images and asked questions about what they reveal in order to see if there’s a supernova on show. This project is not currently running but may return in the future.
The first is a new image of the object, the second shows a reference image and the third is an image made by subtracting the reference image from the new image. If something new has popped up, the subtracted image should reveal it.
Web Address: Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt For Supernovae
Your Mission: Study images from the Palomar Observatory to look for supernovae.
Time Investment: It only tales a few minutes to go through each candidate image set and you can search as may or as few images as you want.
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