Date: May 19, 2010

Title: It’s a Zoo Out There On the Moon!


Podcaster: The NASA Lunar Science Institute

Links: The NASA Lunar Science Institute, Moon Zoo, Zooniverse. Music: River of Light by Michael Joy, from Magnatune

Description: Have you ever wanted to go to the Moon? Well, now you can, as a virtual astronaut, and you can help lunar scientists answer important questions, too.

Bio: The NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.

Dr. Chris Lintott is from Oxford University and is the chair of the Citizen Science Alliance and one of the founders of the Zooniverse. Dr. Katie Joy is from the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a Moon Zoo science team member.

Nancy Atkinson is a science journalist and is the Senior Editor for Universe Today

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Nancy: Have you ever wanted to go to the Moon? Well, now you can, as a virtual astronaut, and you can help lunar scientists answer important questions, as well. Hi this is Nancy Atkinson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute. There’s a new online adventure called Moon Zoo is the latest citizen science project from the what is known as the Zooniverse, which is home to the internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects. So what is Moon Zoo and how can you help? To find out, I talked with Chris Lintott of Oxford University who is chair of the Citizen Science Alliance and one of the founders of Zooniverse, as well as Dr. Katie Joy of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a Moon Zoo science team member.

Dr. Lintott gives us a brief introduction to Moon Zoo.

Lintott: What we’re doing is we’re showing people data drawn from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA’s spacecraft that’s orbiting the Moon and sending back remarkably detailed images of the lunar surfaces. These are images you might have seen of the Apollo spacecraft and you can see the astronaut’s tracks. So that gives you an idea of the scale we’re talking about here. A pixel in these images is something like 50 centimeters, so that gives you a huge amount of data. We’ve got something like 70,000 images down from the first six months of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s life and each one covers something like 70 square kilometers and they come in long thin strips. So it’s a huge amount of Moon and we can’t possibly cover it all, even if we had every one in the US spend a day doing Moon Zoo, which would be a great idea, but we’d still be swamped.

So what we’ve done instead, we have a very good science team ably led by Katie Joy from LPI in Houston who have gone through and selected the parts of the Moon that are really, really scientifically interesting. So what you’ll see is we have a mixture of places that have been visited by spacecraft. We have a lot of images of the lunar south pole, which of course, there’s a huge amount of interest with water deposits down there and so on. Plus they produce dramatic images because you’re looking at them in near sunrise, so there are these giant shadows, and other places where there are reasons to be interested in the Moon’s history.

Nancy: Dr. Joy, how will Moon Zoo, and specifically how will the citizen scientists help you and your team learn more about the moon?

Joy: Ok, we have lots of different tasks that Moon Zoo is trying to do. They are going to help answer different aspects of lunar science and outstanding questions that we still have. So I guess the main thing we really want to do is look at crater size and crater dimensions that we have in these brand new photographs that have come back from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. And these are looking at small craters that have never really been seen before in such high resolution detail. And these small crater populations can give us new information about impacting meteorite rates on the Moon and also provide us with information about the nature of the lunar surface – how thick the regolith is in different parts of the Moon, so we’ve got lots of different science tasks, but I guess that is the most important one.

Nancy: And there’s another task called Boulder Wars – Dr. Joy explains.

Joy: The Boulder Wars task is more of an exploration task than a lunar science task, so what we want to do is look at places on the Moon that have lots of boulders and places on the Moon that are really smooth and essentially boulder free. And what that information can tell us is we can potentially turn that information into creating hazard maps of the Moon’s surface that can be used for future planning exercises, so if you want to send a robotic lander to the Moon, where is going to be the best place to do and where is going to be the worst place to do it. So which craters do you not want to go to where potentially you could land on a big boulder, or vice versa.

Nancy: But there are some science benefits for Boulder Wars, as well. Dr. Lintott explains.

Lintott: One of the things we want to do is record the roughness of the surface. That’s interesting scientifically, but in particular the people who run the instrument DIVINER, which is the radar instrument on LRO want to calibrate their results, and one of the ways is to look at the different textures of the surfaces and see how much is being thrown out by boulders, so for that we need to cover a much wider area. So for Boulder Wars, you’re given two images. It’s like ‘Hot or Not’ for the lunar surface. Two images, you click on the one with the most boulders and on you go. It’s very quick and we hope that with Boulder Wars we can cover a huge amount of ground very quickly.

So those are our two interfaces to begin with, so I think we’ll spend a lot of time looking at the results from those trying to make use of them and understand what they to tell us about the lunar surface.

Nancy: So you’ve got the crater survey and the Boulder Wars, are there plans to add anything in the future?
Joy: Yes, so at the moment, one of the tasks we’re asking people to do is spot things that we think are interesting on the lunar surface; things like lava channels, things like very fresh impact craters that could have been formed in the last few million years or so. So what we really want to do is increase that list of interesting geology features, to include new things that scientists want us to spot – things we haven’t either thought of yet, or things that require a little more training for Moon Zoo users. But we already have a list of potential items.

We’ve got other tasks as well, and one of the main tasks we really want to do is to compare these new LRO images to older Apollo panoramic camera images that were taken 40 years ago. And what we can do is match these older images against the new images with similar lighting conditions and similar angles at which the camera was pointed at the surface and what we might be able to do is to spot differences that have occurred between 40 years ago and now, which should be in the form of say, new impact craters that have formed from incoming bolides. We might be able to spot new debris flows and landslides that have happened in the past 40 years. This can provide us information about the really recent history of the Moon from when Apollo went until now, so that is a really exciting task that we’re hoping will follow on maybe later this year when we’ve got a better idea of how to compare these new images with the older images.

Lintott: As always with Zooniverse projects, we want people to keep an eye out for the weird and the wonderful as well. On the Moon, that means everything from – there are a couple of lost spacecraft, a couple of Russian spacecraft that are up there somewhere and we hope someone will spot them.

Nancy: Chris, Moon Zoo is the sixth Zooniverse Project, following Galaxy Zoo, Galaxy Zoo Mergers, Galaxy Zoo Supernova, Solar Storm Watch and Galaxy Zoo Hubble. How does Moon Zoo compare to the previous projects?

Lintott: Actually I have to say after a day of playing with it I find it much more addictive than the others! Galaxy Zoo was bad enough but I’m obsessed with the Moon now! I can’t quite believe the variety of the places we’re seeing. People think the Moon is this boring place – we know what it looks like, it’s just grey and flat, right? But actually it has its own landscape that is really quite dramatic, especially as we pick the interesting areas, it’s got quite dramatic terrain, especially when the sun is low, so it’s a world well worth exploring.

Nancy: Dr. Joy, I know Moon Zoo has only been live for a few days now, but any first reactions or things that you’ve noticed initially?

Joy: We’ve had some good feedback of things that have been posted on the forum that we’re following up with at the moment. We’ve also noticed that some of the images we’re posted aren’t quite the good quality, they have image artifacts and so we’re trying to address some of the image issues that people have flagged so far. But generally good feedback, people have great interest in the project and say that it is great. And people asking if it is available overseas so that people other than in the UK and the US can access it so people can pass it on to their friends in other countries as well. But generally very positive and very useful information we’ve gotten back so far. But the next few weeks will really be the exciting time as we take stock of how it is all going and start to answer some questions that people are asking on the forum.
Nancy: To check out Moon Zoo, go to and under the “how to take part tab” you’ll find a tutorial that will teach you how to participate in Moon Zoo. There’s also a Frequently asked questions section and a forum where you can ask questions or discuss any issues or interesting finds with other “Zooites”

And I can attest – Moon Zoo IS addictive, but like other citizen science projects, the most gratifying part is knowing that you’re making meaningful contributions to real science. And here’s some final words from Dr. Joy:

Joy: Thank you so much for your interest in the project, it’s really good this is getting out there and we’re getting people interested. We really like to reach out to people that have never really looked at the moon before in any kind of detail and get them excited about all the secrets the Moon still has, because there are plenty of new things that people have never looked at before, so this is hopefully why people will be interested in doing Moon Zoo.

End of podcast:

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