Astronomy as citizen science

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Monday, April 18, 2016

One of the many exciting attractions at the festival was this replica of the InSight mission to Mars up close. You can help map Mars yourself with citizen science projects like Planet Four.
This past Saturday, April 16, kicked off National Citizen Science Day (though events run throughout the month), and I spent it celebrating with the estimated 350,000 attendees of the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Visitors were mostly families, with kids of all ages eager to participate in hands-on science activities and to meet professionals from every imaginable science field. At Astronomy's booth, we were handing out solar viewing glasses in preparation for the Great American total solar eclipse in 2017.

But as exciting as the eclipse will be, it's only one in a very long line of ways that astronomers are well-versed in being citizen scientists. Citizen science is any opportunity for non-professionals to participate in real science projects. This is beyond dropping eggs from rooftops, or whatever else you might remember from school. Amateur astronomers have been using their skills and curiosity to contribute to professional science projects for decades.

There are lots of ways for astronomers of all kinds to get involved. Any time you point your telescope at the sky, you have the opportunity to discover something completely unknown. Many supernova and comet hunters are amateurs, not paid professionals, who do it for love of the hobby and the excitement of discovery. The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) is one of the largest, best-established citizen science groups in existence.

And even if you don’t have a telescope of your own, astronomy fans may enjoy projects like Galaxy Zoo, which lets you sort and identify images of galaxies. The Planet Hunters can pore over data from the Kepler Space Telescope to find extrasolar planets that automated computer programs might have missed. Or Planet Four lets you help map Mars using data from the Mars orbiters. In all these examples, research astronomers put their data online for the public to help sort and analyze by simple visual inspection. Multiple published papers have come out of these joint projects between professionals and the public, and all you need to help is an internet connection.

We feature a new citizen science project every week at Astronomy.com with the help of our partner SciStarter. This week, you can help detect signals from extraterrestrials buried in data from SETI’s Van Allen Telescope Array. Check it out! Who knows what you might find?

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