Citizen Science in Planetary Exploration:
Part 1

Note from the Editors: In this two-part series we explore the role that citizen scientists (or amateur astronomers) play in supporting planetary exploration in the U.S. and internationally. In Part 1, Drs. Nick Lang and Michael Kelley explore the active programs that NASA uses to engage directly with citizen scientists, and Dr. Ted Stryk explores ongoing activities in monitoring astronomical events in the solar system. Part 2, which will appear in the July issue, will continue the story as Stryk looks at how citizen scientists engage with ongoing and past planetary missions to facilitate data processing. — Paul Schenk and Renée Dotson

Citizen Science Within NASA’s Planetary Science Division
Nicholas Lang and Michael Kelley, NASA

Citizen science is an excellent way to engage the public in active science projects. And with April being Citizen Science Month, it seems only fitting to talk about citizen science here. NASA’s Citizen Science programs give people with varying levels of scientific knowledge and training (none to a lot!) the opportunity to contribute to ongoing research projects, while also providing researchers with volunteers to broaden their data collection or image analyses. In this contribution, we discuss the efforts we are making within the Planetary Science Division (PSD) at NASA Headquarters to promote citizen science and to suggest ways people can get involved. For more about how NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) defines citizen science, please see the SMD Policy Document covering this topic (SPD-33).

Within PSD, we are actively looking to expand the visibility of the Citizen Science program to increase (1) the number and diversity of one-year seed funding proposals that are submitted and (2) the number of citizen scientists involved in the projects associated with PSD.

Active Asteroids Project

With the Active Asteroids program, participants search images captured by the 4-meter Blanco telescope in Chile to find candidate active asteroids. Image from the NASA Active Asteroids site.

Our first approach to increase visibility has been to start creating a webpage hosted by PSD that will not only link to active projects for individuals looking to participate in an established project, but will also provide guidance to scientists who would like to submit a citizen science proposal. We are currently in the building stages of this webpage and plan to have it active in calendar year 2023.

Another approach has been to advocate for sessions at annual Geological Society of America (GSA) conferences. For example, we have worked with staff from the SMD Citizen Science Office to submit a session proposal titled, “Engaging the Public in Science: Promoting a Deeper Understanding of Our World and Beyond” for the upcoming GSA Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October. The proposed session aims to highlight citizen science done on planetary-science-related projects and those from other SMD divisions. Citizen science sessions have been quite successful at other meetings such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU). However, GSA has been underutilized for highlighting and recruiting NASA-sponsored citizen science projects and we hope that increasing our presence there will increase participation in our programs.

If you are a researcher who could use volunteers to help you collect and/or analyze images or data for your work, you may be interested in the following citizen science resources:

NASA resources supporting citizen science

Government-wide citizen science resources

Furthermore, if you are planning to start a new citizen science project, we encourage you to submit a one-year seed funding proposal, to help develop citizen science projects. The Citizen Science Seed Funding Program (CSSFP) is a ROSES Appendix F program (F9) and the 2023 solicitation for this program will be released soon. If you have an existing citizen science project, the CSSFP also supports critical transitions intended to broaden the scope of a project. Please also check out opportunities with NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) for broadening participation with existing citizen science projects.

Cloudspotting on Mars Project

Participants in the Cloudspotting on Mars project contribute to the fundamental understanding of martian clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

For volunteers looking to jump in on an established PSD-related citizen science project, you may want to check out the following opportunities:

  • Active Asteroids: Citizen scientists help this project find new asteroids with comet tails in the search for water and ice in space
  • Catalina Sky Survey: For more than 20 years, citizen scientists helped the Catalina Outer Solar System Survey confirm whether animated images of transneptunian objects (TNOs) were real or false detections made by computers
  • Cloudspotting on Mars: Citizen scientists helped researchers comb through 15 years of cloud observations on Mars to confirm and classify images
  • International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC): This program, which also includes educational resources for integration in K–16 formal curricula, provides astronomical data enabling citizen scientists to make discoveries, including the search for asteroids
  • JunoCam: Amateur astronomers are invited to participate by uploading telescopic images and data of Jupiter, which, in turn, help inform NASA’s Juno mission
  • Jovian Vortex Hunter: Uses JunoCam images that have been processed by the mission science team for spotting vortices on Jupiter
  • Stardust@Home: Citizen scientists comb through digital images of samples of interstellar dust collected by NASA’s Stardust mission to find grains of cometary dust in the aerogel collectors
Disk Detective Project

In the Disk Detective project, citizen scientists view images of stars taken by multiple different telescopes and compare images to determine if a particular star has a disk. Image from the NASA Disk Detective site.

For all citizen science opportunities across SMD, please see the SMD citizen science website.

We also encourage individuals to attend the second ever in-person gathering of NASA citizen science leaders at the C*Sci2023 conference in Tempe, Arizona, on May 22, 2023! If you are a researcher involved in a citizen science project, please do strongly consider attending.

For more information about NASA’s Planetary Citizen Science programs, please contact the PSD Citizen Science Program officers Nick Lang or Michael Kelley.

Note from the Editors: Citizen scientists also make critical contributions outside of the NASA programs outlined above. Amateur astronomers have been central in the observation of clouds on Mars and Jupiter, the discovery and monitoring of comets, and other features for centuries. Because large telescope time is very competitive, professional astronomers cannot monitor the solar system continuously; and the terabytes of spacecraft data are simply too vast for scientists to evaluate fully. This is where citizen scientists step in. Ted Stryk, professor at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee, describes several major efforts where these observers are key. Stryk is also a citizen scientist in his own right, regularly reprocessing archived planetary imaging using modern image processing tools. — Paul Schenk and Renée Dotson

Planetary Citizen Scientists in Action
Ted Stryk, Roane State Community College

One of the more recent developments in amateur astronomy has been the monitoring of flashes of light on Jupiter caused by meteor impacts. These flashes are thought to be the result of small asteroids or comets colliding with the planet’s atmosphere, causing a bright explosion that can be seen from Earth.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL-9) was discovered by astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy in March 1993, and was subsequently observed as it approached Jupiter over the course of the next year. What made SL-9 so remarkable was that it had broken apart into several large pieces, which were predicted to collide with Jupiter in July 1994. These collisions were expected to produce a series of explosions on the planet’s surface, creating massive fireballs that would be visible from Earth.

Impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter

A time sequence of four frames showing the impact of the first of the 20 odd fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter. The images were taken at the German-Spanish 3.5-meter telescope on Calar Alto in southern Spain, using the near-infrared camera of the Max Planck Institut fuer Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany. Credit: Calar Alto Astronomical Observatory.

As predicted, SL-9 collided with Jupiter in July 1994, producing a series of 21 impacts over the course of several days. The impacts were captured by numerous telescopes and spacecraft, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo spacecraft, which was en route to orbit Jupiter at the time.

Big dark spots were seen at the site of major impacts. Astronomers started poring through past observations, looking for similar impacts from undiscovered objects colliding with the planet. Several suspicious flashes followed by surface splotches were identified.

The study of these flashes is important for a number of reasons. First, they help scientists better understand the makeup of Jupiter’s atmosphere. By analyzing the light emitted by these flashes, astronomers can determine the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere and gain insights into its structure and behavior. Additionally, these flashes are of interest because they provide valuable data about the frequency and size of meteor impacts on Jupiter. By monitoring the frequency and intensity of these flashes over time, astronomers can gain a better understanding of the risks that such impacts pose to the planet and its surrounding moons.

In 1993, aside from sheer luck, monitoring the planet with equipment sensitive enough continually watch for impacts was prohibitive, even for professionals. Modern webcam and software technology have upended this. Today, the monitoring of these flashes is primarily done by amateur astronomers using backyard telescopes and cameras. These individuals are often highly skilled and dedicated, spending countless hours observing and recording data in order to contribute to the scientific understanding of Jupiter and its atmosphere.

In addition to telescopes, astronomers also use specialized cameras that are capable of capturing video footage at extremely high frame rates. These cameras are often capable of capturing footage at up to 1000 frames per second, allowing them to capture even the briefest of flashes in stunning detail. They are also designed to be highly sensitive to light, ensuring that they are able to capture even the faintest of events.

To capture video footage of Jupiter, astronomers often use a technique called “lucky imaging.” This involves taking multiple frames of video and selecting only the sharpest and clearest frames for analysis. By combining these frames into a single image, astronomers are able to create a final product that is incredibly sharp and detailed, providing a wealth of information about the event in question.

Once the video footage has been captured, astronomers use specialized software to analyze the data and extract relevant information about the flash. This software is designed to automatically identify and track the flash, measuring its size, brightness, and other characteristics. This data can then be used to build a more complete picture of the impact event and the behavior of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

In recent years, technological advances have made it easier than ever for amateur astronomers to participate in this type of study. High-speed cameras and telescopes have become more affordable and easier to use, allowing even more people to contribute to the study of Jupiter and its atmosphere. Moreover, the rise of online communities and forums dedicated to amateur astronomy has made it possible for enthusiasts to collaborate and share data, creating a truly global network of researchers.

Once a flash has been observed and recorded, astronomers can analyze the data to determine its size, brightness, and other characteristics. This data can then be used to build a more complete picture of the impact event and the behavior of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Amateur astronomers have reported observing brief flashes of light on the surface of the Moon for many years. These flashes, known as lunar flashes or transient lunar phenomena (TLP), are typically brief and unpredictable, lasting only a few seconds. Although the cause of TLP is not yet fully understood, several hypotheses have been proposed. One theory suggests that the flashes are caused by meteoroid impacts on the Moon’s surface, while another proposes that they are caused by the release of gas from the Moon’s interior. Other theories include electrostatic discharges, moonquakes, and reflected sunlight.

Transient lunar phenomena

The location of around 2000 TLP reports from 554 AD to the present time. The spot area indicates the frequency of reports for the feature concerned. Credit: Society for Popular Astronomy.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the cause of TLP, amateur astronomers have been instrumental in studying and documenting these phenomena. This utilizes the same type of equipment used to look for flashes on Jupiter, so there is a lot of overlap between these activities.

One of the largest and most organized efforts to study TLP by amateurs is the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) Lunar Flashes Program. This program encourages amateur astronomers to report their observations of lunar flashes to a central database, which is used to study the frequency and characteristics of these events. The program has collected thousands of reports of lunar flashes over the past several decades, providing valuable data for researchers studying TLP.

In Part 2 of this article, to be featured in Issue 173 (July 2023), we will further explore the role of citizen scientists in evaluating and reprocessing data from ongoing and past planetary missions.