IceHunters: Find a space mission’s final target

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Zooniverse (the group behind Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and other citizen science projects) is bringing people around the world another opportunity to participate in astronomy research. This time, though, it comes with an even more exciting potential result: influencing a space mission.

© Ice Hunters 2011
With the help of a team at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the Zooniverse has added IceHunters (http://www.icehunters.org) to its family of websites. The challenge? Discover Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) in the outer solar system. The goal? Find an object or two with just the right orbit to carry it to a rendezvous with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, right now on its way to Pluto.

Scientists have calculated where in the sky such an object should currently be located, and they have used some of the largest telescopes in the world to image this region. These millions of photos are the basis for the search to uncover that sought-after target. Along the way, IceHunters’ users will discover large numbers of variable stars, asteroids, and other KBOs.

But don’t expect gorgeous pictures should you choose to participate. The millions of photos seen in IceHunters are difference images: the result of subtracting two images in hopes of removing all the stars, galaxies, and other non-moving objects in the field. What remains should be objects that move (i.e., KBOs and asteroids) and things that change in brightness like variable stars. But scientists admit that stars never subtract off perfectly, making the search too messy for computers. So that’s where citizen scientists come in.

All of the Zooniverse websites have led to awesome citizen science, but I think this one has added appeal. Could you be the one to discover New Horizon’s final target? Could you influence an important space mission? Now wouldn’t that be a fun story to tell the grandkids! Happy hunting!

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