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 TransitSearch.org 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…

December 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

This month we can enjoy the active Geminid Meteor Shower, which will peak on December 13-14. Viewing conditions should be favorable with the Moon in its First Quarter and setting several hours before dawn. This shower results from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon (view orbit diagram), which was discovered in 1983. The Geminids appear to be getting more intense every year, and we might be in for quite a treat on December 14, 2093 when 3200 Phaethon passes within 0.0198 Au.

Another December experience will be a total eclipse of the Moon on December 21 starting at 7:41 UT (1:41 am CST). Lasting for about an hour, the Moon will appear red-orange from the Earth’s shadow at totality, and will be visible to everyone in North America.

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December 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map
from SkyMaps.com

NSF Funding Citizen Science from Gulf Oil Spill

Recently, Dynamic Patterns Research featured an article on how new federal money — funneled through the NOAA — is being directed to citizen science efforts (read more). Now, additional research dollars from the National Science Foundation have been awarded to an associate professor in the Department of Sociology from Washington State University.

Prof. Scott Frickel, Washington State University

Prof. Scott Frickel received nearly $57,000 to direct his innovative research on the use of citizen science in the response to the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In particular, Prof. Frickel will study how the “experts” involved in the disaster worked directly with members of the affected communities to produce meaningful scientific results in the environmental outcomes of the event. Working mostly with fisherman along the coastline, the ultimate goal of this research will be to analyze a real-world example of a citizen science collaboration to better understand how it functioned and how successful citizen science can be performed.

Certainly, the dollar amount awarded for this project is only a trickle in the United States government’s FY 2009 $3.52 trillion budget: Prof. Frickel is receiving only 0.00000162% of the total allocations. Nonetheless, this represents an important expansion of the recognition of the importance of how citizen science contributes to our society. In fact, the federal government is heading into another session of juggling severe budget cuts against calls for increased scientific funding (when is the US government not juggling… everything?) with new demands for focusing efforts on research, in particular in the area of sustainable energy (read more from American Public Media’s Marketplace broadcast on November 29, 2010).

Although government funding of scientific research can begin with only a best guess of what will be the most important scientific advancement of tomorrow, the funding agencies must do just that. Think: the computer, lasers, the Internet, GPS navigational systems, and even Google… all came from an essentially random grant that slipped through a governmental funding agency. And, today, nearly every person in the entire world is affected on a daily basis by these important developments.

The United States’ funding efforts toward scientific, technological, and medical research have proven critical and invaluable time and time again. So, it is exciting to see a growth now in citizen science funding because there is a strong chance that efforts from the amateur will once again some day be a cultural game-changer. And, maybe the United States government will actually be there to seed the next great revolution in science–from the citizen scientist.

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“NSF grant funds ‘citizen science’ collaboration” :: WSU Today :: November 29, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

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 ]

Community Mapping Brings a Revolution to Geographic Information Science

A recent National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecture series featured Michael Goodchild, a world-renowned geographer and director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Spatial Studies. On November 17, Prof. Goodchild presented his evolving views on the development and distribution of geographic information, and how these are being significantly influenced not only by new technologies, but, in particular, by the volunteer efforts of interested non-professionals connected in with the new technologies.

For the past five hundred years there has been a distinction between the professional experts who generate and distribute “official” or authoritative geographic information, and the amateur consumer of said geographic information. Maps, for example, were developed by professional “explorers” and distributed, often at high costs still today, by governments and other official organizations. Before this current era, however, the broader community was involved in communicating the details of the local and regional geographies. It seems, however, that with the advent of new social and connecting technologies, we are once again returning to these by-gone days of community mapping.

Prof. Goodchild discusses his more recent studies into how social networks and crowdsourcing activities by volunteers from around the world are successfully creating useful and new geographic information that rivals, if not routinely excels, what is generated by authoritative sources. What can be accomplished by a social network of individuals in terms of identifying geographic structures and other elements over broad distances or even over real-time scales cannot be reasonably completed by a lone researcher or by automated computers. This crowdsourcing efficiency from scale is one of the powers of citizen science and is why volunteers are beginning to be recognized and utilized by professional communities to help advance scientific work.

For example, with geotagging features on Flickr, valuable image data of geographic structures can be visualized into a comprehensive review of a region that may also contain direct textual accounts written by the volunteer photographer. Wikimapia is another example of a growing crowdsourced map that overlays detailed location information and stories onto the latest Google map. Volunteers zoom around the map and draw location outlines to identify the specific geographic content, and include additional information, stories, and photographs. With the extreme accessibility of geographic information, the role of the geographer is evolving into less of an analyzer of information and more of a synthesizer of geographic details from many sources.

A key issue arises during the synthesizing of volunteered information through the verification of its accuracy against authoritative information. False details will always be a prevalent feature of volunteered sources, but dealing with this feature is not necessarily an unreasonable task. Typically, just as content is being provided by the crowdsourced masses, so to will the filtering for accuracy be accomplished by the crowdsourced masses. And, the more popular a bit of volunteered information is, the more eyes will be reviewing the submitted data and chances of corrections as needed significantly increase.

In particular, Prof. Goodchild is trying to understand how useful crowdsourced geographical information is during emergency management issues, such as wild fires infiltrating residential areas in Santa Barbara, or damage reports post-earthquake in Haiti. With specific experiences of wild fires in California over the past several years, it was found that volunteered information about location and direction of raging fires were provided with near real-time resolution compared to crashed servers and severely delayed reports from “official” sources. Although the volunteered information contained false positives of wild fire location, and corrections may or may not have occurred on the short time frame, it is certainly better to think the fire is near your back door and make a decision to evacuate than otherwise.

Watch Prof. Goodchild’s 50-minute lecture and learn more about how the average, non-professional citizen is changing the field of geography. And, with the technology at your fingertips, you might be able to find ways to participate in useful geographic information development in your region of the world.

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“From Community Mapping to Critical Spatial Thinking” :: NSF’s Distinguished Lecture series :: November 17, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

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Do you use or contribute to a particular geographic information online resource? If so, please tell us about your experiences here and share the resource for others to discover.

Citizen Science and the Age of Knowledge Generosity

On the eve of Thanksgiving, we tend to start our annual pondering about how we might give more to our friends and family, and maybe even to the world. Citizen scientists–whether they consciously realize it or not–are behaving in a uniquely giving mood with every bird they count, PC time they donate, comet they spot, or galaxy structure they visually identify (among so many more important activities!). The efforts of citizen scientists are a pure form of generosity through the free distribution of knowledge.

Scientific advancement through the professional academic universe certainly has developed an entrenched hierarchy of those who know the “truth,” those who are learning the “truth,” and … everyone else. Having personally experienced the educational opportunities inside advanced scientific learning, it would seem nearly impossible or impractical for an at-home, informal learner of any age to tap into meaningful research or scientific discovery. The notion of the average citizen directly contributing to actual scientific advancement would seem counter intuitive–to the professional academic community.

But, with the advancement of communication technologies in the 21st Century, from Internet technologies to hand-held computing devices, the power of real scientific participation is being delegated to the masses. And, the masses are taking part. Profoundly, they are volunteering their time, skills, and general enthusiasm to explore nature and the universe to not only help with the advancement of scientific understanding, but to increase their personal appreciation for that elusive “truth.”

Roger Highfield, former Telegraph science editor and current editor of New Scientist, recently realized this profound volunteer effort of the crowd and how their contributions have been dramatically influencing scientific advancements, and will certainly continue to do so.

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“Crowdsourcing and open source: knowledge is a gift” :: The Telegraph by Roger Highfield :: November 23, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Last updated May 25, 2020