Hey Citizen Scientists! Help NASA Analyze Images Taken from the Space Station

Calling all citizen scientists, geography buffs, fans of the International Space Station and those who love that orbital perspective! CosmoQuest has a brand new project in coordination with NASA and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) where you can help identify features in photographs taken by astronauts from the space station. The project is […]

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Weekly Space Hangout -Sept 20, 2017: ANU Citizen Science Project for Supernovae

Hosts: Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain) Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter) Dr. Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier ) Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg ChartYourWorld.org) Special Guest: This week’s guests are Dr Brad Tucker and Dr Anais Möller of ANU Citizen Science Project for Supernovae. Brad is an Astrophysicist/Cosmologist, and currently a […]

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Best Jupiter Images From Juno … So Far

The original plans for the Juno mission to Jupiter didn’t include a color camera. You don’t need color images when the mission’s main goals are to map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, determine the planet’s internal composition, and explore the magnetosphere. But a camera was added to the manifest, and the incredible images from the […]

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Join the Eclipse MegaMovie 2017 Chronicling the August Total Solar Eclipse

Ready for the “Great American Eclipse?” We’re now less than six months out from the long-anticipated total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast. And while folks are scrambling to make last minute plans to stand in the path of totality on Monday, August 21st 2017 a unique project seeks seeks to document the view across the entire path.

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NASA Needs Your Help With the “Long-Duration” Space Poop Problem

It turns out, that famous question of “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” is not so easy to answer. At least, not when it comes to ‘going’ — repeatedly — in your spacesuit, when you may have been wearing it continually for six days or more.

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At ISO 400,000, This 6-Minute Film Shows Why We Love the Night Sky

The pursuit of the night sky is ongoing for amateur astronomers. Credit and copyright: Ben Canales.

Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.

“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”

“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”

In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”

As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”

Check out more on Uncage The Soul Productions, Canales’ astrophoto website and Facebook.

Infinity ² from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.

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Grab Your Smartphone And Become A Citizen Scientist For NASA

NASA's new app, the Globe Observer, will allow users to collect observations of clouds, and engage in a little citizen science. Image: NASA GLOBE Observer

It’s long been humanity’s dream to do something useful with our smartphones. Sure, we can take selfies, and post pictures of our meals, but true smartphone greatness has eluded us. Until now, that is.

Thanks to NASA, we can now do some citizen science with our ubiquitous devices.

For over 20 years, and in schools in over 110 countries, NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program has helped students understand their local environment in a global context. Now NASA has released the GLOBE Observer app, which allows users to capture images of clouds in their local environment, and share them with scientists studying the Earth’s climate.

“With the launch of GLOBE Observer, the GLOBE program is expanding beyond the classroom to invite everyone to become a citizen Earth scientist,” said Holli Riebeek Kohl, NASA lead of GLOBE Observer. The app will initially be used to capture cloud observations and images because they’re such an important part of the global climate system. But eventually, GLOBE Observer will also be used to observe land cover, and to identify types of mosquito larvae.


GLOBE has two purposes. One is to collect solid scientific data, the other is to increase users’ awareness of their own environments. “Once you collect environmental observations with the app, they are sent to the GLOBE data and information system for use by scientists and students studying the Earth,” said Kohl. “You can also use these observations for your own investigations and interact with a vibrant community of individuals from around the world who care about Earth system science and our global environment.”

Clouds are a dynamic part of the Earth’s climate system. Depending on their type, their altitude, and even the size of their water droplets, they either trap heat in the atmosphere, or reflect sunlight back into space. We have satellites to observe and study clouds, but they have their limitations. An army of citizen scientists observing their local cloud population will add a lot to the efforts of the satellites.

“Clouds are one of the most important factors in understanding how climate is changing now and how it’s going to change in the future,” Kohl said. “NASA studies clouds from satellites that provide either a top view or a vertical slice of the clouds. The ground-up view from citizen scientists is valuable in validating and understanding the satellite observations. It also provides a more complete picture of clouds around the world.”

The GLOBE team has issued a challenge to any interested citizen scientists who want to use the app. Over the next two weeks, the team is hoping that users will make ground observations of clouds at the same time as a cloud-observing satellite passes overhead. “We really encourage all citizen scientists to look up in the sky and take observations while the satellites are passing over through Sept. 14,” said Kohl.

The app makes this easy to do. It informs users when a satellite will be passing overhead, so we can do a quick observation at that time. We can also use Facebook or Twitter to view daily maps of the satellite’s path.

“Ground measurements are critical to validate measurements taken from space through remote sensing,” said Erika Podest, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is working with GLOBE data. “There are some places in the world where we have no ground data, so citizen scientists can greatly contribute to advancing our knowledge this important part of the Earth system.”

The app itself seems pretty straightforward. I checked for upcoming satellite flyovers and was notified of 6 flyovers that day. It’s pretty quick and easy to step outside and take an observation at one of those times.

I did a quick observation from the street in front of my house and it took about 2 minutes. To identify cloud types, you just match what you see with in-app photos of the different types of clouds. Then you estimate the percentage of cloud cover, or specify if the sky is obscured by blowing snow, or fog, or something else. You can also add pictures, and the app guides you in aiming the camera properly.

The GLOBE Observer app is easy to use, and kind of fun. It’s simple enough to fit a quick cloud observation in between selfies and meal pictures.

Download it and try it out.

You can download the IOS version from the App Store, and the Android version from Google Play.

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Citizen Scientists Help Crack 300 Year Old Mystery Of Eclipse Wind

Totality captured from the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse, as seen from the Svalbard Islands. Credit and Copyright: Tony Hoffman.

Being able to witness a solar eclipse is certainly a distinct experience. Even though the spectacle is mostly visual, there can be other effects as well. The air can cool, and observers may notice a decrease in wind speed or a change in wind direction. There might even be an eerie silence.

Experiences like this have been noted for centuries, and famed astronomer Edmund Halley wrote of the ‘Chill and Damp which attended the Darkness’ during an eclipse in 1715, which he noted caused ‘some sense of Horror’ among those who were witnessing the event.

While most people would describe an eclipse as ‘awe-inspiring’ (and not a horrifying at all) the atmospheric changes noted by observers over the years has been called the “eclipse wind.” And now, based on the observations of over 4,500 citizen scientists in the UK during the partial eclipse on March 20, 2015, this effect is not just a figment of anyone’s imagination; it is a real phenomenon.

The National Eclipse Weather Experiment (NEWEx) was a UK-wide citizen science project for collecting atmospheric data during that eclipse. Members of the public – including about 200 schools – recorded weather changes such as air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and cloud cover every five minutes during the eclipse. That data, submitted online, was compared with official data from the UK’s Met office observations, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.

“The NEWEx was, as far as we know, a world first, in measuring and analyzing eclipse changes in the weather on a national scale, in close to real time, through engagement of a network of citizen scientists,” wrote researchers from Luke Barnard, Giles Harrison, Suzanne Gray and Antonio Portas from the University of Reading, in one of a series of new papers about eclipse meteorology published this week.

The data revealed that not only did the atmosphere cool during the eclipse – which is not surprising since solar radiation is being blocked by the Moon – but the winds and cloud cover also decreased. The cumulative effect is real, not just anecdotal, the team said.

NEWEx collected 15,606 meteorological observations from 309 locations within the UK and from those observations the science team was able to derive estimates of the near-surface air temperature, cloudiness and near-surface wind speed fields across many UK sites. The data submitted by citizen scientists were combined with Met Office surface weather stations and a network of roadside weather sensors that monitor highway conditions. The combination of data helped unravel the centuries-old mystery of the eclipse wind.

From analysis of the data, they found that the wind change is caused by variations to the “boundary layer” – the area of air that usually separates high-level winds from those at the ground.

“There have been lots of theories about the eclipse wind over the years, but we think this is the most compelling explanation yet,” said Harrison in a press release from the University of Reading in the UK. “As the sun disappears behind the moon the ground suddenly cools, just like at sunset. This means warm air stops rising from the ground, causing a drop in wind speed and a shift in its direction, as the slowing of the air by the Earth’s surface changes.”

The measurements from citizen scientists clearly showed temperature drops and a decrease in clouds. The team did note that because of the low velocity of winds and some areas where cloud cover change was small, it was difficult for the participants to make some of the measurements. But the high level of participation across the UK provided enough data for the team to make their conclusions.

“Halley also relied on combining eclipse observations from amateur investigators across Britain. We have continued his approach,” Harrison said.

A total of 16 new papers and reports were published this week in a special ‘eclipse meteorology’ issue of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The special issue is published 301 years after Halley’s report of the eclipse in London in 1715 – and in exactly the same journal.

The team wrote that they hope a similar citizen science effort might take place in August 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America, providing another opportunity to study eclipse-induced meteorology changes.
“NEWEx serves as a useful example of the strengths and challenges of using a citizen science approach to study eclipse-induced meteorological changes, and could provide a template for a similar study for the August 2017 eclipse,” the team said.

Sources: Paper: The National Eclipse Weather Experiment: an assessment of citizen scientist weather observations, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, University of Reading.

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New System Discovered with Five Planets

A new study announced the discovery of a system hosting five transiting planets (image credit: jhmart1/deviantart).

NASA’s planet-discovering Kepler mission suffered a major mechanical failure in May 2013, but thanks to innovative techniques subsequently implemented by astronomers the satellite continues to uncover worlds beyond our Solar System (i.e., exoplanets).  Indeed, Andrew Vanderburg (CfA) and colleagues just published results highlighting a new system found to host five transiting planets, which include: two sub-Neptune sized planets, a Neptune sized planet, a sub-Saturn sized planet, and a Jupiter sized planet.

The team was able to identify the rare suite of five planets in Kepler’s extended mission data by developing algorithms that attempt to compensate for the satellite’s instability, which resulted from the mechanical failure that occurred in 2013.  A member on the team, Martti H. Kristiansen, identified the five transits in diagrams subsequently produced by their pipeline.  The image below conveys the raw and corrected data, whereupon bona fide transits are readily discernible in the latter.

Vanderburg and colleagues obtained spectra that implies the star hosting the planets (designated HIP 41378) is relatively similar to the Sun, featuring a radius and mass of 1.4 and 1.15 times that of the Sun, respectively.  However, the planets in the newly discovered system were found to complete their orbits in a comparatively short time (typically less than 1 year).    The shorter orbital periods are often a result of a selection bias that stems from efforts aimed at detecting planetary systems using the transit method, which uncovers planets by identifying the drop in brightness that occurs as an exoplanet passes in front of its host star along our sight-line.  Such transits are rare because of the impracticality of monitoring a target host star unceasingly, and because of orientation effects (i.e., a near edge-on perspective is required).   The Kepler satellite monitored HIP 41378 for 75 days.

The original Kepler mission observed a 110 square degree field for four years, and Vanderburg noted Kepler’s extended (K2) mission could survey an area up to 20 times larger, thus significantly increasing the number of objects observed.  In particular, it is hoped that a suite of new exoplanets could be discovered orbiting brighter host stars, as those identified during the original Kepler mission were typically faint.  Precise velocity measurements are difficult to achieve for fainter stars, and the data are needed to complement brightness measurements and further characterize the exoplanets discovered.  Specifically, results inferred from the transit search method are often paired with those determined from velocity (Doppler) analyses to yield the density of the planetary systems (e.g., is it a water world?).   Vanderburg noted that the system they discovered possesses amongst the brightest planet host stars from either the Kepler or K2 missions, and is an ideal target for future velocity observations, “it could therefore be detectable with spectrographs like HARPS-N and HIRES in the northern hemisphere, and HARPS and PFS in the south.

The Kepler satellite provides an advantageously large field of view, to enable the simultaneous monitoring of numerous targets, yet a disadvantage is that its resolution is rather coarse.  Indeed, the comparatively poor resolution can result in spurious transit signals (“planet impostors”), which are actually binary star systems in disguise.  “There are many things in the sky that can produce transit-like signals that are not planets, and thus we must be sure to identify what really is a planet detected by Kepler,” Stephen Bryson told Universe Today in 2013.  A pseudo planetary transit could occur owing to a chance superposition of a bright star and a fainter eclipsing binary system, whereby the objects lie at different distances along the sight-line.  The bright foreground star dilutes the typically large eclipses produced by the binary system, hence mimicking the smaller eclipses displayed by transiting planets.   Vanderburg and colleagues evaluated that possibility by obtaining higher-resolution images using the Robo-AO adaptive optics system on the 2.1-m telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory.  The adaptive optics system helps correct distortions imposed by Earth’s atmosphere, thus yielding an admirably high-resolution image that did not appear to feature contaminating stars.

Vanderburg noted optimistically that, “Discoveries such as the HIP 41378 system show the value of wide-field space-based transit surveys. The Kepler spacecraft had to search almost 800 square degrees of sky (or seven fields of view) before finding such a bright multi-planet system suitable for follow-up observations. HIP 41378 is a preview of the type of discoveries the TESS satellite (2017 launch date) will make routine.

The Vanderburg et al. 2016 study has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and a preprint is available on arXiv.  The coauthors on the study are Juliette C. Becker, Martti H. Kristiansen, Allyson Bieryla, Dmitry A. Duev, Rebecca Jensen-Clem, Timothy D. Morton, David W. Latham, Fred C. Adams, Christoph Baranec, Perry Berlind, Michael L. Calkins, Gilbert A. Esquerdo, Shrinivas Kulkarni, Nicholas M. Law, Reed Riddle, Maissa Salama, and Allan R. Schmitt.  If you’d like to help the Kepler team identify planets around other stars: join the Planet Hunters citizen science project.

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