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Citizen scientists are taking over: what does the future hold for amateur astronomers?

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Posted September 26, 2014

Opportunities for citizen scientists are abundant in all areas of science – but astronomy holds some of the “legendary” citizen science projects, and thousands of volunteer astronomers contribute to the field every day by observing, analyzing and classifying scientific data. As technology grows and astronomical surveys expand, what can we expect to see happen in the field of citizen astronomy?

Artist's Concept Illustrating Bulge & No Bulge Spiral Galaxies. Source: NASA

Artist’s Concept Illustrating Bulge & No Bulge Spiral Galaxies. Source: NASA

Currently, a great deal of astronomy research relies on crowdsourcing to go through cosmic amounts of data. For example, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) has imaged a million galaxies in 2007 – Galaxy Zoo project was then launched to recruit the power of citizen scientists who looked through and classified the observed galaxies.

The availability of the World Wide Web and an army of dedicated amateur astronomers have enabled this and many other citizen science initiatives since then. Zooniverse, which is home to the legendary Galaxy Zoo, now hosts multiple projects and attracts thousands of citizen astronomers every day. NASA has recently launched a new SOLVE website, encouraging citizen scientists to contribute to current NASA’s missions. Needless to mention, these and other platforms are constantly growing and new projects are popping up all the time. As technology develops even further, can we expect the community of citizen researchers to get even more power?

Varying level of effort of citizen astronomers in Galaxy Zoo 2 project (each square represents one user). The image serves to show that both committed and new users contribute tremendously to the cause. Image courtesy of the researchers.

Varying level of effort of citizen astronomers in Galaxy Zoo 2 project (each square represents one user). The image serves to show that both committed and new users contribute tremendously to the cause. Image courtesy of the researchers.

Certainly, say scientists at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and University of Oxford. Their “Ideas for Citizen Science in Astronomy” were published ahead of print in arXiv.org last week.

According to them, the field of citizen astronomy is thriving and will continue to do so, “The citizen astronomers are passionate about the subject, and are encouragingly motivated by being of service to science.” Advances in technology are likely to give even more power to astronomy enthusiasts.

In fact, even though professional-led projects will continue to thrive and attract countless numbers of citizen scientists, these and amateur-driven projects will engulf practices which require significant professional intervention, and this will become a luxury limited to few. Moreover, “bottom-up” citizen research is likely to get a boost, with citizen scientists encouraged to develop their own tools for astronomical observation and data analysis.

Future advances are likely to enable citizen scientists to do more from their own backyard: “Larger optics, more sensitive cameras, and spectral coverage extending to longer wavelengths in the infrared could permit citizen investigations of Uranus and Neptune, the Trans-Neptunian and Kuiper Belt objects, and a wider variety of bright variable stars,” the authors say.

Practice shows many enthusiast astronomers are able to do way more than just classify images collected by others. In the future, citizen scientists are expected to come up with and drive their own astronomical projects. In fact, Zooniverse platform is currently being redeveloped to enable users to upload their own data and launch projects.

“Human-machine partnerships” are likely to continue as crowdsourced efforts are used to “teach” artificial intelligence and develop better algorithms for tasks that are best performed by humans. But even with better automated tools, the amount of data is expected to grow tremendously in the nearest future, and the keen eyes of millions of enthusiast observers will be crucial to deal with the sheer volume of information.

“The wide field survey era is upon us,” say the researchers. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope system (LSST) alone is expected to produce more than 30 Terabytes of data each night. Overwhelming data loads are also estimated for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR) and other survey systems.

Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė

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