Tag Archives: citizen science

NASA technicians inspecting IMAGE. Credit: NASA.

Amateur astronomer finds long-lost NASA satellite after 12 years of drifting around Earth’s orbit

In December 2005, NASA lost contact with an important satellite which up until then had provided unprecedented insight into Earth’s magnetosphere. Engineers presumed the M.I.A. satellite was dead for the past 12 years but one amateur astronomers proved everyone wrong after he picked up the long-lost satellite’s signal.

NASA technicians inspecting IMAGE. Credit: NASA.

NASA technicians inspecting IMAGE. Credit: NASA.

Scott Tilley has an unusual hobby. In his free time, the man likes to follow the radio signals of spy satellites. Most recently, he was on the hunt for Zuma, a controversial satellite whose true nature the U.S. government has kept classified and which is believed to have failed at launch earlier this month. Some say the incident was just a ruse meant to keep Zuma under the public’s radar while it still actually operated as intended.

With his ears pricked up for Zuma, Tilley came across something totally unexpected. What he had picked up was the signal corresponding to NASA’s IMAGE satellite, the $150 million mission that suddenly stopped broadcasting after five years of service.

“Upon reviewing the data from January 20, 2018, I noticed a curve consistent with a satellite in High Earth Orbit (HEO) on 2275.905MHz, darn not ZUMA… This is not uncommon during these searches.  So I set to work to identify the source,” Tilley wrote in a blog post.

“A quick identity scan using ‘strf’ (sat tools rf) revealed the signal to come from 2000-017A, 26113, called IMAGE.”

Credit: Scott Tilley.

News of the find soon traveled to the old IMAGE team, including to Patricia Reiff, a space plasma physicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Speaking to Science Mag, Reiff, who was co-investigator on the mission, said that “the odds are extremely good that it’s alive.” We’ll learn if this is the case next week when NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will attempt to contact IMAGE with their deep space radio antennas.

There are already some peculiar developments. For instance, scientists aren’t sure yet why IMAGE’s rotation rate has slowed, something which could impede communication.

Since it launched into Earth’s orbit in 2000 and up until communication broke off in 2005, the satellite provided invaluable information about Earth’s magnetic field. Its instruments recorded the activity of neutral particles ejected by collisions of atoms in the inner magnetosphere, revealing new insights about this region and its interactions with charged particles fired from the sun.

By the time IMAGE went dark, the satellite had been responsible for 37 “unique scientific discoveries.” In fact, its instruments have never been replaced by any other spacecraft so establishing a new comm-link could be incredibly useful for science — and what a thrilling thing that would be. At the end of the day, it just serves to show that hope is never lost.

“It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms,” Reiff said.

Crowdsourcing astronomy: Citizen scientists discover new rocky planets locked in resonance

It’s easier than ever to contribute to science, and this study proves it best. Amateur astronomers using an online platform have discovered five rocky planets orbiting a far-off star.

To make things even more exciting, the planets are orbiting in an interesting mathematical relationship called a resonance chain — every planet takes 50% longer to orbit than the previous one.

Artist’s concept of a top-down view of the K2-138 system discovered by citizen scientists, showing the orbits and relative sizes of the five known planets. Orbital periods of the five planets, shown to scale, fall close to a series of 3:2 mean motion resonances. This indicates that the planets orbiting K2-138, which likely formed much farther away from the star, migrated inward slowly and smoothly. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Citizen scientists

In March 2017, the initial prototype of Exoplanet Explorers was set up on Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal headquartered at Oxford University. Exoplanet Explorers had amateur astronomers analyze data from NASA’s Kepler telescope trails — it was data which had never been analyzed by astronomers. Just 48 hours after the project was launched, researchers had received 2 million classifications from more than 10,000 users.

“People anywhere can log on and learn what real signals from exoplanets look like, and then look through actual data collected from the Kepler telescope to vote on whether or not to classify a given signal as a transit, or just noise,” said co-author Dr Jessie Christiansen, from Caltech in Pasadena.

The system required several people to look at the data and indicate an interesting objective.

“We have each potential transit signal looked at by a minimum of 10 people, and each needs a minimum of 90 percent of ‘yes’ votes to be considered for further characterization,” Christiansen.

After going through the entire dataset, scientists analyzed the demographics of the discovered planets: 44 Jupiter-sized planets, 72 Neptune-sized, 44 Earth-sized, and 53 so-called Super Earth’s — rocky planets larger than Earths but smaller than Neptune.

An artist’s depiction of K2-138. This is brutally inaccurate, as all five planets are in close proximity to the host star. There’s no way water would exist on the surface, as portrayed here. Come on NASA, you’re better than this. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Astronomers were thrilled to see that among the finds there was a system of five planets, all of which were slightly larger than Earth, ranging between 1.6 and 3.3 times the radius of Earth. The planets are locked in a phenomenon called orbital resonance. This means that there’s a simple mathematical relationship between the planets’ orbital periods. In this case, it’s 3:2 — each planet’s orbit is 50% longer than the previous one. This resonance chain of five planets is the longest one ever discovered, though other chains have also been discovered.

“The clockwork-like orbital architecture of this planetary system is keenly reminiscent of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter,” says Konstantin Batygin, assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar, who was not involved with the study. “Orbital commensurabilities among planets are fundamentally fragile, so the present-day configuration of the K2-138 planets clearly points to a rather gentle and laminar formation environment of these distant worlds.”

Space music

This unusual relationship gets even more interesting. Data also revealed a sixth planet, still in resonance, but which it skips two slots in the resonance chain. This might indicate a missing planet, or it might indicate another, unknown process.

It’s even more intriguing that this resonance coincides with a perfect fifth, an interval found commonly found in music. However, the interval isn’t exactly perfect. Instead of the ratio being exactly 1.5 (3:2), it’s 1.513, 1.518, 1.528, and 1.544 respectively. This yields another similarity to music, where musicians often tune their instruments just slightly off from a perfect-fifth to avoid the annoying “beat” that occurs when the tuning is too perfect.

The planets are locked in orbital resonance — like a musical perfect fifth. Image via Wikipedia.

Even so, the most interesting thing about these planets is the way they were found. Nowadays, there’s just too much available data and not enough researchers to look at it. Algorithms are also limited in their scope. Having the sheer brain processing power of thousands of volunteers is simply irreplaceable.

“It’s really hard to tell the computer to find everything that looks like a blip, but not ‘that’ kind of blip or ‘that’ kind of blip or ‘that’ kind of blip. So we just tell the computer to find all the blips and we’ll check.”

“We just uploaded 55,000 new potential planetary signals,” Christiansen says. “We would never be able to get through all of the signals we have without our volunteers.”

The study was published in the online edition of The Astronomical Journal.

Citizen scientists discover new cold star close to our solar system

In this day and age, everyone can be a scientist.

This gif shows the ‘flipbook’ from which citizen scientists identified the new brown dwarf, marked with the red circle. Image credits: NASAClose

After only six days, a new citizen science tool yielded impressive results: users alerted astronomers about a mysterious object which turned out to be a brown dwarf, relatively close to our solar system.

“I was so proud of our volunteers as I saw the data on this new cold world coming in,” said Jackie Faherty, a senior scientist in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics and one of Backyard World’s researchers. “It was a feel-good moment for science.”

The Backyard Worlds allows anyone with a computer and access to the internet to make astronomical discoveries and help NASA scientists. Like many other citizen science initiatives, especially in regards to astronomy, the need for such projects is evident: there’s simply too much data for researchers to analyze, and there’s no way to make an algorithm do a pre-analysis. So the idea is to enlist the help of volunteers from the general public who then signal interesting features and pass them on to astronomers.

In this particular case, volunteer browsed through images taken year after year by NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. If something is close, it will appear to “jump” when multiple images (taken with a significant time distance between them) are compared. The more than 37,000 participants in the Backyard World project are supposed to flag objects that jump like this.

Bob Fletcher, a science teacher in Tasmania, identified a very faint object moving this way. Soon, three other citizen scientists from Russia, Serbia, and the United States flagged the same thing, which spurred researchers to also analyze it, and were thrilled they did so.

The object was too faint to be picked up by previous sky surveys, and without the volunteers, it would have remained undiscovered for a long time. All four volunteers are co-authors on the scientific paper announcing the discovery.

The star they discovered is a brown dwarf — strange objects, too large to be a planet but too small to be a star. Unlike the stars in the main-sequence, brown dwarfs are not massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion of ordinary hydrogen but they can fuse deuterium, generating some heat.

“Brown dwarfs are strikingly similar to Jupiter so we study their atmospheres in order to look at what weather on other worlds might look like,” said Jonathan Gagné, a Backyard Worlds team member from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Journal Reference: Marc J. Kuchner, Jacqueline K. Faherty, Adam C. Schneider, Aaron M. Meisner, Joseph C. Filippazzo, Jonathan Gagné, Laura Trouille, Steven M. Silverberg, Rosa Castro, Bob Fletcher, Khasan Mokaev, Tamara Stajic. The First Brown Dwarf Discovered by the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 Citizen Science Project. The Astrophysical Journal, 2017; 841 (2): L19 DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aa7200

Scientists want you to look at photos of penguins. Yes, really



As scientists from all fields have access to more and more data, a new problem emerges: someone needs to analyze all this data. But there simply aren’t enough time resources to go around, so scientists have adopted another approach: citizen science. Citizen science, also known as crowd-source science is science conducted by amateur or non-professional scientists. In this particular case, UK researchers installed over 100 cameras near penguin territories in Antarctica and its surrounding islands to see how the little penguins are dealing with climate change. With each camera taking a photo daily, there are thousands of photos every day, and not enough people to look at them.

Lead researcher Dr Tom Hart is also encouraging school groups to adopt their own colony – following and monitoring its progress and “learning about Antarctica along the way.” They started the project a while ago, but didn’t had a lot of results with it.

“We’ve been really good at engaging people, but we’ve not been that good at feeding back,” he told BBC News.

So now, they’re launching “PenguinWatch 2.0,” where you also get to see the results of what you’re doing.

A map of the areas you could be looking at.

“We can’t do this work on our own, and every penguin that people click on and count on the website – that’s all information that tells us what’s happening at each nest, and what’s happening over time,” said Dr Hart. “The new part is that people will be able to see [the results of] what they’re doing.”

The team will integrate climate, pollution, and fisheries research from the area, to figure out how changing conditions are affection penguin populations. Penguins are particularly important due to their position in the ecosystem.

“As top predators, penguins are considered sentinels of changes within their ecosystem,” the PenguinWatch website explains. “Because penguins spend the majority of their life in water and fall at the top of the food chain, any variations in their populations may represent larger changes to the dynamic Antarctic ecosystem.”

So, all you have to do is go to the project website – PenguinWatch 2.0 – and log on. Then you can look at photos and identify adult penguins, chicks and eggs. You’ll be looking at images of Adélie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, and Rockhopper penguins. You can also discuss your results on the ‘Discuss’ page with other volunteers. It’s a simple task really, and it can do a world of difference.

Spring is the season for citizen science – what you can do to have fun and help science!

Image via BirdSleuth.

The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and citizen scientists… do citizen science! In case you’re not familiar with the concept, citizen science are activities supported (or sponsored) by universities, organizations, institutes or governments through which everyone can provide meaningful scientific contributions. Activities can vary greatly (from counting birds to analyzing galaxy clusters), and you can do it outside, in nature, or at home on your computer – some are actually quite fun to do while riding the subway. Right now, there’s a huge number of projects you – and anyone else interested in science – can participate in, so I’ll be sharing just a few we found interesting and fun.

Yep, citizen science is not only interesting and useful – it’s often times fun! Spring projects are usually the most active and interesting ones…so, here goes:

iSeeChange | Get involved [US]

This project combines citizen science with participatory public media and cutting edge satellite monitoring data. The goal is to go outside and share observations about the environment and monitor any change that takes place in your area. You can then go on social media and compare your results with your neighbors. This spring, the iSeeChange team is expanding its crowdsourced reporting platform, the iSeeChange Almanac, but unfortunately, it’s only available in the US.

Project BudBurst | Get involved [Worldwide]

Every plant tells a story about our changing climate. Through project BudBurst, you can share valuable ecological data – namely when trees and other plants in your area shed their leaves, flower and fruit. To participate, all you need to do is go outside, look at the plants, and write what you find. It’s interesting, you’ll learn a lot about plant lifecycles, plant species, and how plants are reacting to climate change (for example – are they blooming any sooner?). If you’re a professor or an educator, you can also engage the kids – it should make for a fantastic and interactive lesson! The scientific benefits are also huge.

Discover drugs from your soil | Get involved [US… I think]

The next generation of medical drugs can come from the soil in your back yard! Creating a new medicine is a team effort involving scientist and medical professionals from a wide variety of fields – but we often forget just how little of the natural world we’ve actually studied and understood. Through this project, people from all around the US can help investigators by sending them soil samples from their own backyards, which investigators can then analyze. Natural products are the source of many lifesaving drugs that are used today by doctors around the world – you can contribute to tomorrow’s cures!

ZomBeeWatch | Get Involved [North America]

OK, this one’s a bit trickier. The project involves tracking the honey bee parasite Apocephalus borealis and its spread throughout the continent. So what you have to do is put on a pair of gloves, maybe set up a light trap, and carefully capture a bee, see if it’s infected (the signs are really easy to figure out), and then let it go and report what you found. The project’s website does a good job at explaining how you can do this without getting hurt and without harming the bee. Not really recommended for children, but it’s a fun project, and with the many problems bees are facing these days – it’s extremely useful.

Nature’s Notebook | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Nature’s Notebook is a national plant and animal phenology observation program. Phenology is basically a fancy way of saying “plant and animal life cycle events”. Changes in climate are affecting plant and animal activity across, so scientists want to see how animals and plants are reacting – much like project BudBurst, except it’s also about birds and animals. Excellent for animal observations.

Snapshots in Time | Get Involved 

Do you like photography and salamanders? Well… do you like photography and think salamanders are … OK? Then this might be the thing for you! determining changes in the timing of breeding is very important, not just for these species, but also for others that use the same habitat. For this reason, biologists need people to go outdoors and take pictures of the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). This effort will focus on populations found throughout their range in North America, but it’s available everywhere there’s a population of these two species. Both species are fairly distinctive, and you can see images and instructions on the Snapshots in Time website.

Age Guess | Get Involved [Worldwide]

If you don’t want to get out of the house, and also want to hone your age-guessing skills, this is the project for you. AgeGuess investigates the differences between perceived age (how old you look) and chronological age (your age) as a potential aging biomarker. Basically, you look at pictures of other people and guess how old they are, and if you want, you can also upload pictures of you and have other people guess your age.

Cities at night | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Astronauts have taken numerous pictures from the ISS of cities at night, in an attempt to study light pollution. The problem is that the pictures are taken automatically, and scientists don’t know exactly what they are looking at – so it’s up to us to identify the cities and locations and tell them!

Big butterfly count | Get Involved [UK]

You can’t really talk about citizen science without counting butterflies now can you? There are several butterfly counting projects out there, I’m just picking one of the good ones here. What you do here is go outside, in a park or a garden or just somewhere in a natural setting, and spot the butterflies and moths for some 15 minutes. Over 44,000 people took part in 2014, counting almost 560,000 individual butterflies and day-flying moths across the. This particular project is aimed at the UK, but there are other ones for the other areas in the world. Another butterfly count project (more aimed at North America) is eButterfly.

Disk detective | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Several teams of astronomers are trying to identify dusty debris disks, similar to our asteroid field. These disks suggest that these stars are in the early stages of forming planetary systems and learning more about them could help us understand more about our own solar system. The problem is that computers often confuse debris disks around stars with other astronomical objects. This project launched by NASA is a call for volunteers to help – you can be an amateur astronomer, from your own home!

Eyewire | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Throughout everything that we’ve discovered on our planet and in the Universe, the human brain remains one of the biggest mysteries. Eyewire wants you to help scientists map the human brain, through a fun and easy to use interface. Upon registering, players are automatically directed through a tutorial that explains the game. You are given a cube with a partially reconstructed neuron branch stretching through it, coloring through some cross sections and generating 3D reconstructions, branch by branch. Multiple players work on the same cube, and then advanced players, oversee the work.

Explore the seafloor | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Are you ready to map the seafloor from your own living room, or while you’re on the subway? Explore the seafloor provides you with tutorials and introductory images, and then you take a look at spectacular underwater pictures and tag what you see. You’ll take a look at great pictures, learn about underwater habitats and help scientists – the perfect mix.

Orchive | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Listen to the whale songs – namely, orca songs. Orcas are some of the most remarkable predators on the face of the Earth. The goal of the Orchive project is to digitize acoustic data that have been collected over a period of 36 years. The acoustic data have been recorded using a variety of analog media at the research station OrcaLab, and they currently have over 20,000 hours of orca songs. You can help digitize them. It gets a bit dull after a while, but for the first part, I actually found it extremely interesting.

CosmoQuest | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Map the craters of Mercury, but also of the Moon and Vesta. There is an interactive tutorial that will show you what to do and how to do it. It’s easy to do, and you get to look at pictures of the Moon, Mercury and Vesta.

Dear Professor Einstein | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Albert Einstein was certainly the most influential scientist in modern times; but he wasn’t only a brilliant mind, he was also very vocal about a number of issues. He left behind a hefty hand-written correspondence, and you can read it and transcribe it. Speaking of transcribing…

Ancient Lives | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Image via Huff Post.

For more than a century researchers have been unearthing known and unknown literary texts as well as the private documents and letters that could improve their understanding of the ancient lives of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Yet many of these papyri have remained unstudied – due to a lack of resources. This is where you step in. You can learn to read, understand and ultimately translate papyri from Egypt. Impress your friends, and learn a foreign language… sort of.

Be A Smithsonian Archaeology Volunteer | Get Involved [Local to the Smithsonian]

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming an archaeologist… this is an amazing opportunity. Join the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab for excavating two sites. You can volunteer for one or several days, and no previous experience is required, as on-site training will be provided. This opportunity is suitable for families with older children (13+ directly supervised by a parent/guardian, 16+ may be able to work without having a parent/guardian present) and groups.

Milky Way Project | Get Involved [Worldwide]

Basically, astronomers have tens of thousands of images gathered with the Spitzer Space Telescope – and they could use some help. Just look at the images and tell researchers what you see in infrared data.


So, these are just some of the citizen science projects you too can get involved in! Citizen science is all about learning interesting things, having fun, and helping scientists better understand our planet – and the universe! Some are great weekend activities, some are great to do while on the subway or on the bus – get your kids involved, tell your family, have butterfly scouting competitions in the park or count the sea urchins on the bottom of the seafloor. Or if you feel more daring, step outside our planet and take a look at other planets and galaxies – everybody can now access these amazing opportunities. So, which one (or which ones) will you embark on?

If these are still not enough for you, you can find more projects on Wikipedia, SciStarter and Scientific American.