Emily LakdawallaJun 21, 2011

The most exciting citizen science project ever (to me, anyway)

A guest blogger here recently rounded up the large number of participatory research projects that are collectively known as citizen science. I think these are all very cool and I encourage you to check them out but none of them has yet inspired me to spend my precious time as grunt labor on a gigantic collective project. Until now. Icehunters is a new site from Zooniverse -- the same people who brought you Galaxy Zoo, Planet Hunters, Moon Zoo, Old Weather, and more -- and it tackles a really compelling research problem, namely, What as-yet-undiscovered world (or worlds!) will New Horizons explore once it has zoomed beyond Pluto?

And guess what? You just might discover them. (If I don't find them first.)

New Horizons at Pluto and Charon
New Horizons at Pluto and Charon Image: Ed Hengeveld / Philip Corneille

To explain: New Horizons isn't just a mission to Pluto; since its conception as the "Pluto Kuiper Express" it's been planned to perform at least one more flyby of a much smaller object in the Kuiper belt after Pluto has receded in New Horizons' rear-view mirror. But no perfect target has been discovered yet (although there is now at least one candidate, 1994 JR1). In fact, they haven't even been looking, until very recently. The problem is that the region of space that Pluto has been passing through is very difficult to canvas for tiny, dim, slow-moving Kuiper belt objects, because it just so happens that Pluto is currently near the galactic center in our sky and therefore in front of a pretty dense field of stars.

So the New Horizons team waited as long as possible to begin the search, which reduced the region of densely-star-filled sky that they had to search. But the search has finally begun, and on moonless nights they are grabbing as many photos of the region as they can using two enormous telescopes, the 8-meter Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea and the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope in Chile.

They're gathering a lot of data, and the sooner they discover good targets, the better. That's where you (and I!) come in: we're all invited to join the hunt for New Horizons' Kuiper belt target in the Icehunters project. You'll have it much easier than Clyde Tombaugh did; the project has already taken care of processing sets of images to show you the difference between two views of the sky taken hours apart. Potential Kuiper belt objects show up as little white blobs, waiting for your mouse clicks.

The demo has been out for a while, and I find it very easy to use (as are all the Zooniverse projects), with a very helpful tutorial. As of this morning it's passed its demo stage and is ready for prime time. So everybody go to Icehunters and join in the search for a world that we may get to explore with the nimble New Horizons. Opportunities to discover an object and see it explored within your lifetime are vanishingly rare. As a bonus, while you are hunting Kuiper belt objects you may spot faster-moving, streaked-out asteroids that nobody else has spotted before.

You can help make New Horizons an even greater journey of discovery -- now go forth and discover new worlds!

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