Space Invaders: Astronomers Get Crowdsourcing Savvy

Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” This principle has been at the heart of space exploration ever since Galileo steadied his telescope on the glimmers of light illuminating the night sky. Advancement in space exploration, though, is a laborious process, requiring hundreds of costly man hours. In recent years, astronomers have been discovering ways to speed up the process with crowdsourcing. In 1999, the SETI Institute, a space exploration non-profit, launched SETI@home which uses the power of home computers to analyze data via a screensaver. Galaxy Zoo, a crowdsourced space project that began in 2007, invites people to examine images of space taken by the Hubble telescope and classify them into galaxy shapes, such as spirals or voorwerps – unrecognized objects.

Last week, the SETI Institute once again tried its hand at space crowdsourcing with the beta launch of a smartphone app (an iPhone version expected out by summer). As CNET News reported, the app – SetiQuest Explorer – sends phones radio signals that have been picked up by the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. Examining the signal shapes (lines, pulses or squiggles) that have been sent to their phones, volunteers will identify the signals as one of seven patterns which correspond to manmade sources such as airplanes, CB radios, and satellites. If a signal does not correspond to one of the SETI patterns, it may be an indication of extraterrestrial life, and the pattern will be red flagged for investigation.

Seti Institute Director Jill Tarter hopes to awaken “citizen scientists” to the excitement of exploring the vast expanses of solar systems while, simultaneously, getting much needed help sifting through huge amounts of satellite data. “We want people to help us find things we don’t expect,” she said. “A computer doesn’t do random pattern matching. A computer is not very good at serendipitous detection, and humans are,” Tarter told CNET News.

To be effective, there needs to be enough app users to identify an unrecognized signal patterns within 4 minutes. “We need to be able to follow up on a signal right when we see it,” Tarter explained. Francis Potter, the app’s designer, seems to think this is achievable if users turn to the app when they have a few idle minutes: “It’s something to fill time, like Twitter.”

Though the SetiQuest Explorer app is a clever way to enlist the help of would-be astronomers, its true genius (and one of the great advantages of crowdsourcing) is the way in which it engages users on a forgotten subject. A sector of science that has been out of the spotlight since the ’80s, space exploration may receive more funding and advancement more quickly, if the public was enthusiastic about it again. In what other ways could crowdsourcing reawaken people to the excitement of scientific discovery? What other areas of science have fallen off our radar?

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