Month: October 2010

Watch the live dissertation defense about Citizen Sky

Last year, DPR AmSci Journal wrote about a great new citizen science program called Citizen Sky [read from August 26, 2009]. This project is collecting observational data on the current eclipsing of the variable binary star system epsilon Aurigae. The primary star is estimated to be 300 times the diameter of our Sun, and the eclipsing object orbits at about the equivalent distance of Neptune from the Sun.

Measured eclipse durations of epsilon Aurigae
Eclipse durations measurements of epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy

Discovered in 1821 by Johann Fritsch, the system has continued to be a mystery with its odd 27-year eclipsing cycle coupled with a 600+ day eclipse, which has been increasing in length during each cycle.

The most recent plausible hypothesis to describe this interaction was proposed in 1965, which suggests that an edge-on disk, possibly surrounding another star or planet, is orbiting the giant star. This idea was just recently confirmed with the direct observation of the current eclipse from an international team lead by Brian Kloppenborg at the University of Denver, and joined by groups from the University of St Andrews, Georgia State, and the University of Michigan.

Combining the images from four separate telescopes, this innovative method uses optical interferometry to generate a spectacular view of the eclipse estimated to be 140 times sharper than what the Hubble Space Telescope could generate.

CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae
CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy University of Michigan Astronomy

The eclipse began in August 2009, and will be in its dim minimum throughout 2010 until returning to normal brightness in the summer of 2011. Over one thousand citizen scientists have been participating and more are still being requested to help collect as much data as possible over the next year.

With all of the participants in this science program, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens working with the ever-growing collection of real science opportunities for the public, it is interesting to start considering how this participation actually influences the individual volunteers.

Graduate student and staff member at the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Aaron Price, has been developing his thesis in science education at Tufts University to begin exploring this important connection between science literacy and the volunteer citizen scientists. Using a series of pre- and post-surveys administered to actual users of the Citizen Sky project, Mr. Price develops quantitative reviews of how some aspects of scientific literacy can be impacted by direct participation in collaborative citizen science programs.

This type of research should become an important building block for the continued success and development of future citizen science programs. By learning to focus in on how to best connect a broader population into an increased level of general scientific understanding and appreciation will not only allow for scientific advances to progress more efficiently, but the participating cultures will benefit as a whole with more sophisticated ways of living.

You may watch Mr. Price’s dissertation defense live, and even participate yourself with questions, on November 1, 2010. With this streaming event, we should participate as active citizen scientists to help guide the professional scientific community in the underlying understanding of how these projects connect with the participants so that future citizen science projects may be improved and developed with new education innovations.

“Scientific Literacy of Adult Participants in an Online Citizen Science Project”
Time: Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:30pm (EST)

Location: Crane Room, Paige Hall, 12 Upper Campus Road, Medford, MA 02155

If you do watch the defense and participate, please comment below or on the DPR Facebook page to tell us what you thought of the discussion. How do you feel your personal scientific literacy has changed since participating in citizen science programs? Do you think that these projects are valuable methods for expanding the general public’s appreciation for scientific understanding?

… …

“Online streaming of dissertation defense about Citizen Sky” :: blog posting by Aaron Price :: October 22, 2010 :: [ READ ]

“Scientists capture ‘terrifying’ Tolkien-like eclipse (w/ Video)” :: :: April 7, 2010 :: [ READ ]

… …

Learn more about the Citizen Sky project and register to prepare to submit your own observations of epsilon Aurigae. There is still plenty of time to participate as the 600-plus-day long eclipse in only half-way complete.

Observe the Close Encounter of Comet 103P/Hartley 2

Skimming by Earth as close as 11 million miles on October 20, the apparently young Hartley 2 comet will be nearly visible to the unaided eye. With binoculars, it will appear even better as a fuzzy, green blob, and a backyard telescope will offer excellent viewing. The next several days should be busy mornings for amateur astronomers, and will also be a great time for anyone to do some easy viewing of a special celestial event.

Head outside while it is still dark before sunrise, and look upward to the north. Passing through the constellation Auriga will be an unusual green blip from October 17 through October 20. If you are skilled in taking photographs… or, just want to give it a try!… please post your images on our Facebook page and tell us about how you took the image and what equipment you used. We are very interested to see the results from experienced amateurs as well as first-time astro-photographers.

Sky map for Comet 103P/Hartley 2 on October 17 through 20
Sky map for Comet 103P/Hartley 2 on October 17 through 20. Courtesy

Discovered in 1986 by Malcolm Hartley, Comet 103P/Hartley 2 orbits the Sun about every 6 1/2 years. Based on current estimates of mass loss, it’s expected to last for another 700 years. [ READ MORE ] What’s particularly interesting about this comet is that it is relatively small–just less than a mile in diameter–but the nucleus is still very active. On November 4, 2010, NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft will venture only 435 miles away from the comet to frantically take images and data about the unique comet. At this point in the comet’s orbit, it will be about at its closest approach to the Sun, called the perihelion distance, and the ice formed during it’s long journey in the outer solar system will be vaporizing at rates that are much higher than other previously observed comets. EPOXI will be close enough to take stunning images of out-gassing, and it will potentially observe physical features directly on the surface of the nucleus at a resolution of 7 meters per pixel.

Orbit Diagram of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 generated from NASA's JPL Small-Body Database Browser
Orbit Diagram of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 generated from NASA's JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

This study is so important because Hartley 2 will be only the fifth comet nucleus viewed up close and personal by NASA. And, comets are critically important because they represent untouched remnants from the formation of our solar system. These chunks of pre-system debris did not get sucked into a forming planet long ago, so they contain material that was present way before even the Earth started preparing itself for the development of life.

Be sure to learn more about this exciting Comet 103P/Hartley 2 and how NASA is preparing to study the orbiting body [ READ MORE ]. Take the time this week to head out in the early morning and look up for the green, glowing blob that might prove to be a treasure trove of new scientific understanding.

Last updated April 5, 2020