Archives For citizen science

During the Perseid meteor shower, I blogged a video of a bright meteor taken by astrophotographer Mel Gigg. He had shared the image fairly widely and soon others noticed that they had caught the exact same shooting star themselves. In fact four observers had caught the same object as it flew into the atmosphere above Southern England, three of them have shared their images online (Wayne Young, Mel Gigg and Steve Night).

Credit: Wayne Young

Credit: Wayne Young

Credit: Mel Gigg

Credit: Mel Gigg

Credit: Steve Knight

Credit: Steve Knight

Look carefully and you’ll see that these images show the same streak of light but against drastically different star fields. That’s because meteors are high above the ground and visible across a large area. Due to the effect of parallax, they appear to shift relative to the night sky for different observers. In the extremes, an observer underneath the meteor, would see it go directly overhead, whereas others might see it from the side, where it would appear to fly nearer to the horizon. In this case it was seen by four people from different positions so they each had a different angle on the meteor and a different backdrop of stars.

In a wonderful example of citizen science, Wayne Young (one of the four photographers) took the four images and the lat/long data of each observer’s location, and created a 3D model of this particular Perseid’s path. You can see it below modelled in Google Earth (KML file here).

To create this he’s triangulated the path of the meteor by comparing each of the four images to one another. Given the capabilities of computer vision tools and, I wonder how much of this could be automated. It wouldn’t be hard to search Flickr for shooting stars seen at similar times and locations maybe we can scrape more trajectories automagically? This might be an ideal hack day project for .Astronomy. To plot many of these paths on top of each other would be interesting.

It’s fun to surmise that, given this Perseid’s path, it would have touched down in a field in North Devon. Good job it most likely disintegrated long before then.

I was at RAL today, as part of a teacher training event run by the National Space Academy, to talk about the Zooniverse and how our projects can be used to teach astronomy, science and maths.

I gave an overview of the Zooniverse, and then highlighted ZooTeach, the dedicated website where teachers and educators can create and share lesson plans, centred around the Zooniverse citizen science websites.

ZooTeach is great and will only get better as more teachers know about it and use it. Check it out at and follow on Twitter at @ZooTeach.

Planet Four

January 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

Tonight is the start of the 2013 round of the wonderful BBC Stargazing Live. three nights of primetime astronomy programmes, hosted live from the iconic Jodrell Bank. Last year the Zooniverse asked the Stargazing Live viewers to find an exoplanet via Planet Hunters (and they did!). This year we want everyone to scour the surface of Mars on our brand new site: Planet Four.

Every Spring on Mars geysers of melting dry ice erupt through the planet’s ice cap and create ‘fans’ on the surface of the Red Planet. These fans can tell us a great deal about the climate and surface of Mars. Using amazing high-resolution imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) researchers have spent months manually marking and measuring the fans to try and create a wind map of the Martian surface, amongst other things. They’ve now teamed up with the Zooniverse to launch Planet Four, where everyone can help measure the fans and explore the surface of Mars.


The task on Planet Four is to find and mark ‘fans’, which usually spear as dark smudges on the Martian surface. These are temporary features and they tell you about the wind speed and direction on Mars as they were formed. They are created by CO2 geysers erupting through the surface as the temperature increases during Martian Spring. These geysers of rapidly sublimating material sweep along dust as they go, leaving behind a trail.


The fans are just one feature that you’ll see. The image above shows some great ‘spiders’, with frost around their edges. There’s lots to see, and hopefully the audience of Stargazing Live will help us blast through the data really quickly.

Stargazing Live begins at 8pm on BBC2. If you can’t watch it live then why not hop onto Twitter and follow the #bbcstargazing hashtag? You’ll also find me, Planet Four and the Zooniverse on Twitter as well.

The Andromeda Project

December 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last week we launched a brand new Zooniverse site: The Andromeda Project. We’re asking people to spot star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy in data from the Hubble Space Telescope. You might think it sounds like menial work but it’s strangely addictive –  and incredibly useful for the researchers behind the data.

This project joins The Milky Way Project and Whale FM as a collection of Zooniverse sites that I have been a lead developer on. Amit Kapadia was the other lead for Andromeda and we’re pretty pleased with the result: check it out at

The Zooniverse strives to take so-called data deluge problems and turn them on their head, creating awesome websites where the public can do the grunt work – only it’s fun! Many Zooniverse projects take a task that would once have been done by a lowly grad student for months or years – and frees them up to do the more complex data reduction and analysis tasks. Spotting star clusters in Andromeda requires no special training – just a few examples and some enthusiasm. In this way we (the Zooniverse) try and crowdsource many problems, from classifying galaxies by their shape, to listening the bat calls. You can see all the current projects at

The Andromeda Project launched as part of the Zooniverse Advent Calendar, which began with our new publications page. This page shows the growing collection of peer-reviewed papers that result from Zooniverse volunteers clicking on our various sites. These papers are the whole point: all Zooniverse projects aim to produce real science results, offering the chance for anyone to be involved in science.

Andromeda is going well: with nearly 600,000 classifications performed already: a task that would have taken a researcher years! All this in less than a week. As I write this, the community of 8,000 users that has amassed around the project is currently classifiying images at a rate of 1 per second!

If you want to join in, take a look at

[Image Credit: Robert Gendler]