What Is Citizen Science?

Put simply, citizen science is any science done by everyday people that has the potential to lead to new understanding of the universe we share. This can vary from people studying Earth’s climate change by recording when the first flowers bloom, to studying weather on Mars by recording the seasonal dust storms.

From Photons to Final Results

A lot of different things go into transforming data into understanding. In astronomy, the process generally starts with taking raw digital measurements. This is not an easy process! Many science questions require images to be taken by many million (or billion!) dollar telescopes scattered on and above the Earth’s surface. Other questions require many images to be taken of one object over and over across many nights. One way that citizen scientists often get involved is as observers who can use their personal telescopes to add research. This kind of work is supported by citizen science projects like the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the Puckett Observatory World Supernova Search, and the PACA Project (and many many others!).

The raw images then need to be processed. For instance, images of the Moon taken from an orbiting spacecraft may start out appearing oddly distorted because of the angle of the camera and the motion of the spacecraft. They may also have odd over- or under-exposed areas due to variations in the optics or electronics. Our team of scientists reduce all of the images to correct for the electronics (e.g., removing dark current,) and optics (e.g., flat fielding,) and then make geometric corrections so roughly the same number of meters consistently fill the same number of pixels.

Once the images are corrected, the long hard road to science can begin. The first step is processing them in ways that makes them useful. Processed images are then examined in a variety of different ways. Images of star fields, for instance, can be analyzed with software that measures the brightness of the stars and flags all other non-stellar objects that may have crept into the field. Images of planetary surfaces can be analyzed by eye to look for different geographic features. This kind of analysis is another place where citizen scientists can get involved. Projects like those you’ll find here at CosmoQuest invite you to help scientists analyze images for specific features that software isn’t capable of identifying. The features you find are tabulated in our databases.

Once a set of images is analyzed, the tabulated data can be used to draw conclusions about the objects being studied.

The Many Facets of Citizen Science

Acquiring (and processing) images and noting down what is in the images aren’t the only ways that people can get involved in citizen science. The truth is, there are both projects that do science on your computer while you sleep and there are projects that have people just like you helping in the final analysis. How much or how little effort a citizen scientist puts in can be highly variable, but if the project is well designed, that time is always useful.

Science from screen savers may be the most well-known kind of citizen science. Back in 1999, programmers and scientists at the Berkeley Space Science Laboratory launched the SETI@Home project using the BOINC Software platform. Designed for Windows computers, this software would download batches of radio telescope data and use people’s computers to search the data for signals while the computers were otherwise not being used. While SETI@Home never turned up signs of alien radio stations, the BOINC software it’s based on has been behind a number of  publications on topics ranging from climate science (with ClimatePrediction.net) to relativity (with Einstein@Home).

People also get involved in writing software to help analyze old data in new ways (and sometimes new data in alternate ways). The UnmannedSpaceflight.com forums are host to a community of people who are writing innovative routines for processing data from spacecraft so that it can be used for new science and to create new immersive experiences. Over at AAVSO, amateur astronomers took a leading role in building the software that produces charts with comparison stars for variable stars and other observing targets.

There is really no limit to how people are getting involved. One of our favorite stories is that of Mike Simonsen, a trained musician (think Herschel, but with an 80’s rocker vibe,) who is currently the director of development at the AAVSO. With contributions to more than twenty peer-reviewed papers, Mike has pushed forward research in cataclysmic variable stars through a combination of observational excellence, tenacity, and force of will. It is rare that a question drives a regular Joe Mike to lead an investigation and find the professionally employed scientists needed to complete publications, but for Simonsen, the unknown mysteries in Z Camelopardalis dwarf novae ignited just this kind of curiosity.

Don’t be fooled by imitations

There are a lot of projects out there that call themselves “citizen science,” but really aren’t. These well-meaning projects get people (often kids) engaged in replicating experiments with known outcomes. This provides an awesome chance to follow in the footsteps of great scientists and to see exactly how it is we know what we know about our universe. What it doesn’t do is advance our current understanding of the universe. A better description of these activities is either participatory science or authentic engagement, and they are great for basic learning. While you should never be discouraged from learning, just make sure you know if you are contributing to new science, or replicating known science. Good citizen science projects should always tell you what new science you’re contributing to understanding. Want to learn what you’re contributing to on CosmoQuest? Check out our page on CosmoQuest Citizen Science Projects.