AmSci Opportunities

Get Started in Citizen Science with the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

If you have been considering getting involved in Citizen Science and just haven’t found the time or the right project, then let this annual opportunity pique your interest! The Great Backyard Bird Count is hosted every February by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and it takes as little as 15 minutes. It’s also fun, free, and perfect for the entire family to do together. 

During the four-day event (Friday, February 16 through Monday, February 19, 2018), head out into your backyard and count the birds you observe. Next, simply submit your checklist of observations online or through a mobile app, and your data will be used by researchers for the rest of the year to study how birds are getting along in our environment. This is the 21st year for the GBBC and last year more than 210,000 participants provided bird observations of nearly 6,000 species!

Bird populations shift throughout the United States, and observations of these behaviors are a vital window into environmental trends. For more details, check out the 2017 results and the many great photos sent in along with the observations.

Sign up today to get prepared for your backyard observations and download the free mobile eBird app (iOS | Android) for all of your bird observations. 

Let us know if you participate this year and anything interesting you observe, and share your bird photos on our Facebook page!

Witness the Flyby of an Asteroid a Quarter of a Mile Wide

On November 8, 2011 in the late afternoon (CST), a rather large space rock will fly within about 200,000 miles of our home. There is no chance that it will impact this time around, and has very minimal chances for the next several hundred years.

View the interactive orbit diagram for 2005 YU55 from NASA’s JPL.

This certainly isn’t the first time large asteroids have whizzed by Planet Earth, but what is exciting is that astronomers for the first time have had a reasonable head’s up to look for such a large object so close before the flyby. This might be a little disturbing, of course, as this “first” does represent a significant weakness in our past successes of identifying potentially dangerous near-Earth objects. And, Dynamic Patterns Research has written about this important issue earlier this year, with a focus on how amateur researchers can play an important role in early detection.

The path of the asteroid will take about 11 hours to pass through Earth’s field-of-view, and amateur astronomers in North America should be able to glimpse 2005 YU55 with nice backyard telescopes. A detailed path was generated courtesy of Sky and Telescope (VIEW MAP) and you may read more about the flyby along with additional observational tips:

“Mini-Asteroid Makes a House Call”, HOMEPAGE OBSERVING by Kelly Beatty
Sky and Telescope November 1, 2011. [ READ ]

Watch how NASA is planning track the close approach of 2005 YU55:

Citizen Scientists to Map Biogeography of Microorganisms Across United States

The Astrobiology Research Center at Penn State is currently developing a pilot citizen science program to study the diversity of microbes that live in your home hot water heater. The goal of this initial project is to test their approach for bridging citizen scientists volunteers with microbiology, as well as to create an initial “map” of the diversity of microorganisms across the United States.

The research group is looking for only two volunteers from each state at this time. If you would like to participate, simply register online.

View the Project Flyer (pdf)

Planet Hunting a Giant Leap for Citizen Science

It all started back in the olden-days of mid-2007 with GalaxyZoo: the ultimate in online, interactive citizen science where anyone with eyes, an Internet connection, patience, and an appreciation for beautiful galactic images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey could make a reasonably important contribution to astrophysical scientific research. Driven by the initial success of this project, including an in-press research paper featuring the discovery of an ionisation nebula coined “Hanny’s Voorwerp” from a GalaxyZoo user, the supporting researchers of GalaxyZoo and the Citizen Science Alliance are rapidly developing new research interfaces based on the original GalaxyZoo model under a canopy program call “Zooinverse.”

From mapping the surface of the Moon, watching for solar flares, identifying merging galaxies, sorting and mapping our Milky Way … and more … the Zooinverse program offers wonderful opportunities for anyone at home to interact with our amazingly expansive universe and help better understand what is out there. All of these projects are important for keeping an eye on our local galactic neighborhood and mapping the greater cosmos.

Now, launched just earlier this month, the most critical and valuable Zooniverse project has begun: Planet Hunters.

We live on an amazing planet. It has perfect habitats for our species and human being continue to thrive on Earth. However, 2011 marks a predicted global population of 7 billion with a rapid rise to 9 billion in 2045 (read the current feature in National Geographic, January 2011). Earth is a very big place, and people are very little inhabitants. So, this planet really can handle quite a bit of our exponentially-increasing consumption, and it will successfully deal with our ways for millennia. However, humanity does like to take up a lot of space, and the long term dilemma might be that we as a species won’t be able to handle ourselves in such large numbers.

Just like the development of simple tools and all subsequent technology is a defining and fundamental evolutionary advantage of homo sapiens, one of the next big leaps using our technology will be discovering, traveling to, and inhabiting another home in the Universe. The goal should not be to find a replacement homestead (unless an asteroid places us in its gravitationally-driven cross-hairs — keep an eye out yourself for close approaches), but rather just a galactic expansion plan for human beings.

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“… And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all quarters of the universe.” – Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, page 515 (1872).

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Any possible home away from home, however, will be in a neighborhood far from our spot in the Milky Way. The nearest star to Earth — Proxima Centauri — is 4.2 light years, or nearly 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km) away. That’s a long trip no matter what units you use! And, unfortunately for us there doesn’t seem to be a pale blue dot orbiting Proxima Centauri. So, without a doubt, an impressive technological advancement in human transportation must be developed before any upward and outward expansion launches. And before we can even set our sights onto another inhabitable planet, we, of course, need to actually find one — if one even exists!

If planets orbiting stars throughout our galaxy and others have not been an assumed notion for at least the duration of what current history labels “modern science,” then their existence certainly has been imagined, anticipated, and thoroughly written about. We just have to find them.

The two key planet hunting techniques successfully used over the past two decades to reign in a host of extrasolar planetary systems were initially suggested in 1952 by Otto Struve (1897-1963) while at the University of California, Berkeley. Struve suggested that it should not be unreasonable that Jupiter-sized objects might be orbiting very close to its host star, in contrast to our own system. Finding a large planetary mass together with a small orbit radius and high orbital frequency would make it possible to detect the gravitationally-induced spatial oscillations of the host star due to the planet.

Struve offered the important caveat that this approach — called the “wobble method” — which would be most reasonable with orbiting systems that are aligned with a line of sight toward an observer on Earth near a 90° inclination; i.e., so that the orbit crosses an observer’s view point perpendicularly rather than straight on and the reactive motion of the star would face “toward Earth”.

He also suggested a second method — the “wink method” — currently used today for detecting decreases in starlight intensity as an orbiting object passes directly between its host star and an Earth observer’s line of sight.

Struve, O. “Proposal for a project of high-precision stellar radial velocity work.” The Observatory, vol. 72, pp. 199-200 (1952). [download the original paper]

With technological advances in instrumentation sensitivity since Struve’s proposal, these very methods, along with additional new ideas, have been used with great success in discovering and measuring basic physical properties of extrasolar planets. For a more detailed review of the “wobble,” “wink,” and other methods, including direct imaging, please read the DPR review article on Extrasolar Planet Discovery Techniques.

It wasn’t until 1992 that human beings finally discovered an extrasolar planet so long envisioned. Today, there is a rapidly increasing list of extrasolar, or “exoplanets”, on the record books with many teams around the world working at a feverish pace to find more and discover weird, new behaviors in our Universe. One official count maintained by Jean Schneider of the Paris Observatory and the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia sets the total discoveries at 515 identified exoplanets as of December 25, 2010. A previous check of this catalog by DPR — on June 27, 2005 — found only 160 planets identified, so the discovery rate is certainly impressive.

The mission of discovering planets in other solar systems is so exciting, and yet so grueling that professional astronomers formally opened up the hunt to the avid amateur community. There is a great deal of grunt work and extensive measurement time involved with systematically searching the countless visible stars in the sky for the off-chance that a planetary orbit may be observed; and time is expensive when big telescopes and federal grants are required to make progress. Planet hunter and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, Gregory Laughlin, established to guide amateur astronomers with a good telescope and a lot of patience in searching for likely candidate stars as hosts for planets. Bruce Gary has written the detailed, 253-page guide “Exoplanet Observing for Amateurs, Second Edition,” which he has made available as a free PDF e-book [ download now ]. Amateurs may learn from this valuable resource on how to take your backyard telescope and transform it into an optimal planet-hunting machine.

Kepler Spacecraft and Photometer. Courtesy NASA.

On March 6, 2009, NASA launched its tenth Discovery Mission called Kepler, which is designed to directly monitor the brightness of 100,000 sun-like stars in our neck-of-the-woods of the Milky Way. Using the “wink method,” the light curves fed to Earth from Kepler can be analyzed to look for signatures of transiting bodies. If the measured light intensity from a star drops, there might be a transiting body. If the intensity drops again, and again — in a stable, periodic way — then there just might be an orbiting planet.

Once an orbit is identified, then a great deal of information can be calculated, including a reasonable prediction if the planet might be habitable based on our human standards of what makes a nice home. Using the period of the orbit calculated from the observed repetition of the drop in star brightness, the orbit size can be determined. And, along with the observed temperature of the star, a characteristic temperature of the planet can be estimated. (Read more about the Kepler mission and learn more about NASA’s Center for Exoplanet Science.)

So far, researchers have confirmed eight planets from the light curves provided by Kepler. Each of these eight rocks seem to be very hot, very big, and very close to their host star. In other words, not so pleasant.

But this is only the beginning of the search! Kepler is continuously scanning thousands of stars, and there are many light curves to individually review. All of the data is being made available to the public for download and review through an online archive funded by NASA, but the interface is rather cumbersome for the interested amateur. So, this is where the team at Zooinverse enters into the game…

The creators of Galaxy Zoo have developed their latest interface that takes the raw light curve data from the public Kepler database and presents it to users in a scalable graph. After presenting a particular data set, the interface asks you a few simple questions about what you see. The questions are relatively trivial for a human observer with our extremely efficient pattern recognition abilities, but extraordinarily difficult for an automated computer program scanning the data points. It is this fundamental advantage over artificial intelligence code that offers not only the beauty of the Planet Hunters project, but also is the essence for why citizen scientists can be so crucial to important scientific pursuits.

A screenshot of the Planet Hunters interface from Zooinverse.

Many of the measured stars look like the data set presented above: the brightness measured from the star varies somewhat randomly over a period of time, but maintains a simple average level with the variation due to white noise or random behavior in the star’s activity. Other data might show a clearly periodic or cyclical pattern to the brightness, which represents a pulsating star, or it might have a very irregular brightness pattern, but the variation occurs over a smooth, continuous curve.

If a star has another massive orbiting body pass directly through the line-of-sight of the Kepler telescope toward the star, then a sudden dip in the brightness will be measured. This rapid dip is due to the orbiting body — most likely a planet! — blocking some of the light radiating from the star. If this extreme dip is seen periodically, then the full orbit of the planet can be measured.

Possibly two transiting planets classified by Dynamic Patterns Research on Planet Hunters.

On December 27, 2010, Dynamic Patterns Research was fortunate enough to help classify a very clear example of a light curve that might represent two separate orbiting planets around SPH10122348, a dwarf star with apparent visual magnitude of 12.9, a temperature of 5,625 K, and a radius of about 1.7 times that of the Sun (view the light curve with a Google star map).

The data interface for SPH10122348 presents a “quiet” star with apparently constant brightness, within some random variation, but it has four extremely dramatic dips in brightness. Two of the dips are relatively shallow — representing a smaller orbiting planet that only covers a small fraction of the star, and the other two dips are particularly deep — possibly showing a very large planet that obscures a larger portion of the star, at least from the view of Kepler.

The four blue outlined boxes are part of the intuitive interface, which are movable and scalable boxes that the user may manipulate to identify potential transit data. Here, we placed two shorter boxes over the “small” transiting body, and two long boxes over the “larger” transit. The classification is saved and reported into the researchers at Zooinverse to review, further analyze and send back through the system to allow other users to make independent confirming classifications of the same data.

Once a light curve has been identified and vetted as a potential candidate for an exoplanet, the research team will identify which users were involved in the classification and post the results on their candidate page (view current list). Further review will check to make sure the star is not already on a previously identified list from either Kepler or older observations. If the data appears to be a new discovery, then the research team will follow up with spectroscopic data from the Keck telescope in Hawaii, and if further screening tests are passed, then the result will be submitted for publication. Citizen scientists who participated in identifying the transiting planets will be included as co-authors on all published research papers.

Scientists around the world are looking for planets around other stars, and with the power of citizen science you can now play an integral role in this critical research. This is a prime moment for citizen scientists to prove their value in professional scientific work, and this opportunity is extremely easy to dive into. Unleash your citizen scientist and start hunting planets now…

Volunteers Send Messages in Bottles Around the World

Global ocean currents represent one of the most complex fluid dynamics problem a scientist can tackle. However, an understanding of how things float around and through our planet’s waterways is not only crucial for transportation vessels, commercial fishing, and water safety (read more), but also for tracking and managing less controlled events such as oil spills or migration of aquatic life.

Measuring the local ocean current — as a captain heads into harbor or simply tries to stay on course — has been performed by mariners since boats began to float. Simple techniques using a floating object, an observer and a timing device can provide very localized and crude measurements for current flow velocities. In the 1700s, mathematicians Joseph Louis Lagrange and Leonhard Euler developed models for describing and measuring fluid flows, and sophisticated techniques of today are designed from their work. From sophisticated drifters with on-board transmitters, acoustic Doppler shift measuring devices, to on-shore high-frequency radar antennas, much more detailed views of the flowing ocean can be visualized.

Drift Bottle Project leader, Eddy Carmack

Taking a more simplistic approach, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada organization lead by scientist Eddy Carmack has harnessed the power of citizen scientists, students, and other interested volunteers from around the world to discover new complexities in the oceans’ currents. Considered to be a final hope effort for the unfortunate stranded island visitor, the classic “message in a bottle” can potentially drift far and wide around the globe until an unsuspecting beach comer discovers the washed up SOS.

Since 2000, The Drift Bottle Project has tossed nearly 4,500 bottles into the waters off of British Columbia all the way to the shores of Greenland. Contained inside are messages describing the drop time and place, and a request to contact Carmack’s research team if found. Most of the bottles don’t make it very far… they either drift to a local shoreline or are damaged and lost to the ocean’s depths. However, some have made quite the journey. One reported bottle started from Baffin Island and drifted four years until being found some 9,300 miles away in Puerto Rico.

This great and inexpensive project, although not sophisticated enough to provide a high level of detail mapping of ocean currents, is perfect for communities and students to get involved in thinking about our oceans and our environment. Hundreds of people have been involved up north, and it would be a relatively straightforward program for any coastal community, classroom or science organization to develop and implement. If you would be interested in creating a new drift bottle program for your area, please contact DPR and we’ll help connect you with resources and information to begin planning and development.

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“Ocean bottle drop expected to reveal mysteries of currents” :: Calgary Herald :: October 1, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

Learn more about how ocean currents are measured:
NOAA’s Ocean Currents Tutorial :: [ DOWNLOAD PDF or READ ONLINE ]

Cornell’s Project FeederWatch has Begun

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology has just begun its 24th year of Project FeederWatch. This annual winter citizen science program asks participants to maintain bird feeders in a clearly defined observational area, like your backyard view from the kitchen window, and count maximum numbers of identifiable birds on selected observation days.

The observational period runs from November 13 through April 8, and anyone may still register to get involved in the 2010-2011 season. Registration may be quickly completed online and costs $15. With this fee, you will receive an observational kit including a bird-identification poster, bird-feeding information, and instructional materials.

The data collected from participating citizen scientists is extremely valuable for monitoring the distribution of winter birds all over North America. And, because the program requests reporting to be completed every week, if possible, a very detailed and dynamic view of bird populations can be developed during the observational period.

The FeederWatch project is a perfect opportunity for anyone who is a casual backyard bird watcher to take only a small step to observing birds at the next level. The information provided to the Lab or Ornithology will be used by engaged researchers who are dedicated to monitoring and protecting our avian friends.

This program also offers a great educational experience for families to enjoy together at home. Through making observational identifications (which is made much easier with the provided poster and additional online resources–see All About Birds), recording and submitting data, and reviewing and exploring current data online, young learners will have a self-guided experience to develop critical skills along with a new appreciation for nature and the scientific process.

Dynamic Patterns Research has just registered with Project FeederWatch, so we will be participating in the current season. After our first observational days and reporting has been completed, we will post our results and experience here on DPR.

If you are also participating, please let us know by commenting below or contact us. We would like to share your observations with brief summaries here on Dynamic Patterns Research to report on active citizen scientists and their efforts and experiences.

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Learn more about Project FeederWatch

Learn about Project FeederWatch’s resources for homeschooling families.

Register Now for Project FeederWatch 2010-2011 Season

Last updated August 7, 2022