Today, scientific discoveries ranging from finding new planets orbiting alien stars to finding light echoes from quasars are all being made by everyday people working as citizen scientists. This isn’t a new phenomenon – the planet Uranus was found by composer turned astronomer William Herschel – and throughout history, people like you have transformed science just by asking “What is that?”
Here are CosmoQuest’s Current Projects:
Moon Mappers was CosmoQuest’s original CSP. It established that citizen scientists can accurately aid professional researchers, and found that the average spread in the population of craters by experts is greater than the difference between the average of the experts’ data and the volunteers’ consensus data. This validated CosmoQuest’s approach and showed that volunteers, as a group, reliably reproduce an expert’s crater data. It’s research project is ongoing. We are gathering crater data from the Apollo 15 landing site using Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera images with sun angles from 27° (~noon) to 83° (~sunrise/set) to understand how detection varies with incidence angle. Since many bodies in the solar system are limited to flyby imaging, understanding how professionals may be biased in their analysis of these terrains due to non-optimal lighting conditions could help create a “correction factor” to better understand these bodies and the impactor population that affected them.
This CSP launched in April 2015 with funding to support interface design only. It has with two science goals, championed by Dr. Edwin Kite and Dr. Stuart Robbins. Both projects require the identification and measurement of small, sub-km impact craters that will be used to understand the timing and resurfacing history of two different types of regions of Mars. Kite’s research examines small craters at proposed rover landing sites. The goal is to measure the frequency of small craters, which (for certain landscapes) are inversely correlated with erosion rates. Rapid-erosion sites are preferred sites for rover investigation because near-surface rocks at these sites will have spent relatively little time undergoing irradiation by galactic cosmic rays. Because galactic cosmic rays destroy complex organic matter, rapid-erosion sites are favorable locations for the preservation of complex organic matter and thus for astrobiology-rover investigation. Planet Mappers: Mars will help to identify high-priority areas in the search for past life on Mars. Robbins’ project will examine small craters in volcanic areas to model when both very large volcanoes and much smaller volcanoes (on their flanks, in surrounding fields, and even within the main caldera) last erupted. This work has implications not only for Mars’ heat budget, but also life because active volcanism can provide not only a heat source, but also a chemical gradient that life could take advantage of.
This project launched in 2013, with no funding to support efforts beyond creating the interface. Full-planet photographic coverage of Mercury from MESSENGER reveals that one of the basic assumptions of impact cratering is broken on that planet: Secondary craters – craters formed when blocks of ejecta from an extraplanetary impactor are launched and create their own craters – dominate crater counts at diameters as large as 10 km. Secondary craters on the Moon and Mars only begin to dominate at diameters of ~1 km. This discrepancy is explained by impactors’ velocities being more than twice as fast at Mercury than Earth, generating higher energy ejecta. Mercury’s larger gravity further enhances the ejecta impact velocity. Work needs to be done to study these craters to determine the true amount of contamination. By mapping craters across Mercury, we can better understand the maximum diameter of secondaries relative to their parent primary.
The Dawn Mission began getting up close and personal with giant asteroid (aka mini-planet) Vesta in July 2011. Over the ensuing year, the spacecraft’s awesome instruments gathered intriguing data from this mysterious world in the main asteroid belt. They include tens of thousands of images taken by the framing camera, more images than the team has time to analyze in detail. That’s where you come in. You don’t have to be a member of the Dawn team to engage in the art of interpreting the images. When all of us participate in the scientific endeavor, our accumulated findings can help the Dawn Science Team make sense of new elements on the surface of Vesta: its age, its composition, its revealing patterns. Vesta Mappers is a collaboration between the Dawn science and education/public outreach teams and CosmoQuest. As in many compelling human endeavors, a bunch of people got together, explored ideas, shared resources, and broke new ground, this time following CosmoQuest’s Citizen Science model.