All posts by The Zooniverse

Online citizen science projects. The Zooniverse is doing real science online,.

Bursts from Space

This is a guest post by summer intern Anastasia Unitt.

The study of celestial objects creates a huge amount of data. So much data, that astronomers struggle to make use of it all. The solution? Citizen scientists, who lend their brainpower to analyse and catalogue vast swathes of information. Alex Andersson, a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, has been applying this approach to his field: radio astronomy, through the Zooniverse. I met with him via Zoom to learn about his project detecting rare, potentially explosive events happening far out in space.

Alex’s research uses data collected by a radio telescope located thousands of miles away in South Africa, named MeerKAT. The enormous dishes of the telescope detect radio waves, captured from patches of sky about twice the size of the full Moon. This data is then converted into images, which show the source of the waves, and into light curves, a kind of scatter plot which depicts how the brightness of these objects has changed over time. This information was initially collected for a different project, so Alex is exploiting the remaining information in the background- or, as he calls it: “squeezing science out of the rest of the picture.” The goal: to identify transient sources in the images, things that are changing, disappearing and appearing.

Historically, relatively few of these transients have been identified, but the many extra pairs of eyes contributed by citizen scientists has changed the game. The volume of data analysed can be much larger, the process far faster. Alex is clearly both proud of and extremely grateful to his flock of amateur astronomers. “My scientists are able to find things that using traditional methods we just wouldn’t have been able to find, [things] we would have missed.” The project is ongoing, but his favourite finding so far took the form of a “blip” his citizen scientists noticed in just two of the images (out of thousands). Alex explains: “We followed it up and it turns out it’s this star that’s 10 times further away than our nearest stellar neighbor, and it’s flaring. No one’s ever seen it with a radio telescope before.” His excitement is obvious, and justified. This is just one of many findings that may be previously unidentified stars, or even other kinds of celestial objects such as black holes. There’s still so much to find out, the possibilities are almost endless.

A range of light curve shapes spotted by Zooniverse citizen scientists performing classifications for Bursts from Space: MeerKAT

Unfortunately, research comes with its fair share of frustrating moments along with the successes. For Alex, it’s the process of preparing the data for analysis which has proved the most irksome. “Sometimes there’s bits in the process that take a long time, particularly messing with code. There can be so much effort that went into this one little bit, that even if you did put it in a paper is only one sentence.” These behind-the-scenes struggles are essential to make the data presentable to the citizen scientists in the first place, as well as to deal with the thousands of responses which come out the other side. He assures me it’s all worth it in the end.

As to where this research is headed next, Alex says the prospects are very exciting. Now they have a large bank of images that have been analysed by the citizen scientists, he can apply this information to train machine learning algorithms to perform similar detection of interesting transient sources. This next step will allow him to see “how we can harness these new techniques to apply them to radio astronomy – which again, is a completely novel thing.”

Alex is clearly looking forward to these further leaps into the unknown. “The PhD has been a real journey into lots of things that I don’t know, which is exciting. That’s really fun in and of itself.” However, when I ask him what his favourite part of this research has been so far, it isn’t the science. It’s the citizen scientists. He interacts with them directly through chat boards on the Zooniverse site, discussing findings and answering questions. Alex describes their enthusiasm as infectious – “We’re all excited about this unknown frontier together, and that has been really, really lovely.” He’s already busy preparing more data for the volunteers to examine, and who knows what they might find; they still have plenty of sky to explore.

Adler Zooniverse Summer Intern Experience: Tasnova & Colored Conventions

By Tasnova, Guest Writer and Adler Zooniverse Summer ’22 Teen Intern

This summer, I worked as an intern for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, alongside Lola Fash and Dylan. As a group, we carried out Zooniverse projects and interviews with the researchers leading them. In this blog post, I will share about my experience with the main project that I took part in: Transcribe Colored Conventions

In July 2022 I interviewed Dr. Jim Casey and Justin Smith, two of the research leads for the Colored Conventions project with Zooniverse. Dr. Casey is an assistant research professor of African American Studies at Penn State University, managing director of the Center for Black Digital Research, and co-founder for the Colored Conventions project. Justin Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in English and African American studies at Penn State and a member of the Douglass Day team.

Before I dig into what the Colored Conventions were, I’d like to share my own experience while working on these projects. I chose to focus on Transcribe Colored Convention because I am a huge history lover. I want to learn everything; learning feeds my curiosity. I was really excited to learn about the Colored Conventions since they are often neglected in textbooks; my school never taught me about the Colored Conventions. It was my first time learning anything about the Colored Conventions. I was so excited to get to interview the amazing people leading the Zooniverse project to transcribe documents related to the Colored Conventions.

The Colored Conventions were events that took place during the nineteenth century and spread across 34 states.  In these Conventions, the participants talked about how they could get access to voting rights, education, labor, and business. 

Artist rendition of the Colored Convention meetings. Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/arts/design/colored-conventions-a-rallying-point-for-black-americans-before-the-civil-war.html

However, despite how important they were, no one really talks about the Colored Conventions today. It is incredibly sad for me to see this important part of our history being neglected.

Another interesting aspect about the Colored Conventions that I learned about through interviewing the team is that the documents related to the Conventions were very male dominated. What this means is that while men’s efforts were well documented in the Conventions’ archive, women’s efforts were not. For example, of the names initially identified and highlighted in the documents, 98% belong to men.

An early researcher who recognized women’s contributions to the Colored Conventions is Dr. Psyche William Foresham, a University of Maryland professor who wrote the essay “What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?” In the essay she talked about how women organized restaurants and boarding houses for the people who traveled from other states to join the Convention meeting. They also financially supported them. The essay was eye opening for other researchers, and prompted them to read the Conventions’ documents more carefully to find references to women that might have been overlooked. As a result of these efforts, they found more references to women in the Convention documents.

Zooniverse volunteers also helped transcribe the Colored Convention documents, further unlocking the data for the researchers. The researchers were thrilled to see so many people actually participating in transcribing the documents and caring deeply about the project. The volunteers transcription efforts also uncovered additional evidence of references to women’s efforts in the Colored Convention documents. In my own journey learning about this project, I was happily surprised to see that so many people participated in transcribing the documents and cared about this piece of history that was neglected for so long.

Here are some clips from the full recording of my interview with Dr. Jim Casey and Justin Smith.


A few final thoughts: When I was interviewing the researchers, I loved seeing how passionate they were. It feels rare to talk with people who are passionate about their work. If I see someone who is really passionate about their work and the effort they put in, it’s incredibly motivating. I hope to feel the same in my career.

Colored Convention Project team helping the volunteers during the Transcribe-a-Thon. Credit: Dr. Jim Casey

During my interview, I was nervous in the beginning because this was my first time interviewing a researcher, or anyone. My hands and feet were cold. I tried to calm myself down so I wouldn’t stutter. I think I did a good job interviewing them. My mentor, Sean (who is the Zooniverse designer at Adler), helped me a lot in preparing for the interview. He helped me see that the pressure is not on me as an interviewer; instead, the pressure is on the interviewees because they need to answer the questions. I think that really helped me to calm down because I kept saying to myself that “the pressure is on them, not me.” And my interviewees were such nice people too! I was proud of myself for how I carried out the interview.

Last, but not least, thank you to my teammates Dylan and Lola Fash for helping me out with my summary, video editing, and my blog. 

These are my Zooniverse intern colleagues. They helped me with every single challenge in my internship. Photo credit: Tasnova] 

Adler Zooniverse Summer Intern Experience: Dylan & Active Asteroids

By Dylan, Guest Writer and Adler Zooniverse Summer ’22 Teen Intern

Every once in a while, you get an opportunity that’s so cool, you sort of can’t believe that it’s happening. When I was told that I would have the chance to interview Dr. Colin Orion Chandler, a (then) grad student at Northern Arizona University, who is responsible for creating and leading the Active Asteroids project on Zooniverse, I was beyond thrilled. Every year, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago hires several interns to fill a variety of placements around the museum. As Zooniverse interns, Lola Fash, Tasnova, and I got to interview several researchers on three different projects: Transcribe Colored Conventions, NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze, and my focus, Active Asteroids

What are active asteroids, and why should we care?

An active asteroid pictured on the Active Asteroids project About page, on the Zooniverse website. The green circle shows where a coma would appear, and the white arrows point to the tail of the asteroid. (Photo Credit: Zooniverse)

Active asteroids are bodies that follow a typical orbit for an asteroid, but, when observed, they are seen to have comae, which are clouds around the object, and tails, which form when water, dry ice, or dust streak out behind the object. These bizarre objects are extremely rare, so we don’t know much about them, but their tails and comae lead researchers to believe that they might have water on them. According to Dr. Chandler, “Water gives us fuel power. Things that we need to drink, to live, gives us things to breathe. It lets us grow food. I mean, it does a huge number of things. But you have to actually know where you might find it and how hard it is to get out of there.”

The hunt for active asteroids

Studying active asteroids could yield remarkable amounts of scientific information, but they are so faint that scientists have trouble finding them. However, the Dark Energy Camera in Chile is sensitive enough to photograph these asteroids, and it sometimes catches an asteroid in part of an image when it was photographing a different object altogether. 

To get data from these archived images, Dr. Chandler and his team break the images into chips, cut out the asteroid, and then focus and enhance the image so that, if there is a tail, we will be able to see it. Will Burris, one of Dr. Chandler’s students, has helped streamline this process. All of these steps have been automated so that computers can process the nearly 30 million images that could contain active objects, and narrow it down to about 10 million where the objects are most likely to appear. 

The image above demonstrates the process by which the Active Asteroids team finds images of potential active asteroids before they pass the images along to volunteers who can better identify them. (Photo Credit: Zooniverse)

The next step in the process is to identify whether or not there is a tail or coma around the object in the image, and that’s where volunteers come in. Computers are unable to identify active asteroids with a reasonable degree of accuracy, so the task falls to human minds. But, because of the sheer volume of images, Dr. Chandler and his team are unable to process them on their own. Instead, they harness the power of the crowd to classify these images for them, so they can process the data in a reasonable amount of time. When we spoke, Dr. Chandler explained why he opted to go this route, and why he chose to use Zooniverse specifically, stating that, without Zooniverse “It [Active Asteroids] wouldn’t have been as successful, not even by a fraction.”

Once Zooniverse volunteers have fully sorted the data, Dr. Chandler and his team examine the results and single out promising candidates that should be followed up on later with different telescopes. William Oldroyd, in particular, helps with this process. One improvement he’s looking to make is discarding feedback from overly optimistic citizens. Some citizens flag far more asteroids as active than what truly exists, which can throw off the data collected by the Active Asteroids team. The observation and analysis team hopes that they will be able to separate these overly optimistic classifications from the rest, so that they can improve the accuracy of the data that comes in. 

With a complete dataset, Dr. Chandler as well as his project co-founder, Jay Kueny, and their chief science advisor, Chad Trujillo, examine the results. If an object was flagged as active, they follow up in one of two ways; direct observation and archival research.

Studying active asteroids

Pointing a telescope directly at a candidate active asteroid to look for more signs of activity seems like the most obvious way to confirm whether or not it is active. However, this is often difficult for several reasons. 

For one, many candidates are so faint that it can be difficult for even the most advanced telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, to pick them up. 

For another, they can only be observed at certain times in their orbits, and those intervals are usually years apart. Even if an asteroid is visible, it might not be active at that time, since there are many different reasons that an asteroid becomes active, and they each result in different patterns in activity. In an impact event, activity is temporary and only associated with the collision. Likewise, in the event of a rotational breakup, which occurs when an asteroid spins too quickly and falls apart as a result, an asteroid will only have activity corresponding with breakup events.

The image is one that volunteers classified on Active Asteroids. This object has already been confirmed as active. However, if one were to look at it with a telescope right now, it might not currently have a tail, or it might not be visible at all. (Image Credit: Zooniverse)

The asteroids that are most likely to show repeated activity are asteroids that are active due to sublimation, a process in which, as the asteroid gets closer to the Sun, the frozen carbon dioxide and water on its surface turn into gas and form a coma and tail behind it. Although this is a recurring event, a formerly active asteroid will not always be sublimating, so even if it can be observed, activity might not be detected. 

For all of these reasons, when an object is identified as a promising candidate for activity, researchers prefer to follow up by looking through archived images that contain that object. When we talked, Dr. Chandler referred to “archival investigations” as “instant gratification” since he did not have to deal with the limitations of direct observation, and he could immediately confirm activity and further investigate the object by using images that were already taken. 

Dr. Chandler and his team have already used the results from Active Asteroids to find and study several promising objects, and they are in the process of publishing their findings.

Reflections on my experience

All in all, working as a Zooniverse intern and learning about Active Asteroids has been an amazing experience. Going into the interview, I was worried that Dr. Chandler would be unapproachable and difficult to talk to. However, he seemed more than happy to discuss his work with me, and we actually talked well beyond the time when I’d originally expected the interview to stop. We were able to talk not just about Active Asteroids, but also what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ person pursuing a career in science. As a young trans person, I often feel like I lack a connection with adults in my community, so getting to talk to someone with an identity similar to mine who was successfully pursuing a career in the field I aspire to join was an incredibly powerful experience. I wish I had a larger word count and some more time since I feel like I could probably write a whole book on interning at the Adler Planetarium and studying the Active Asteroids project on Zooniverse.

When I originally heard about active asteroids, I was mildly intrigued, but not all that excited about writing about them. Although I love all things space related, six months ago I would have said that asteroids are just about the most boring thing in space. However, after having done this project, I’ve become enthralled by active asteroids, and small planetary bodies in general. The idea of all the smaller rocks, tumbling through strange orbits in all kinds of places around the Sun, some with water or other invaluable resources that we may never even find, has found a special place in my heart. I hope this blog post has given you a piece of that.

Adler Zooniverse Summer Intern Experience: Lola Fash & NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze

By Lola Fash, Guest Writer and Adler Zooniverse Summer ’22 Teen Intern

This summer I had the opportunity to be a Zooniverse intern at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, with two other interns, Tasnova and Dylan.  As a group, we carried out a series of interviews with researchers leading Zooniverse projects. My focus project was the NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze on Zooniverse. I led the interview with  NASA scientist Marilé Colón Robles, the principal investigator for the project, and Tina Rogerson, the co-investigator and data analyst for the project. 

Marilé Colón Robles (right) and Tina Rogerson (left) outdoors working on GLOBE Clouds. Photo Credit: Tina Rogerson. 

NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze is a collaboration between the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program, NASA’s largest citizen science program, and Zooniverse. When NASA began to study clouds to understand how they affect our climate, they launched about 20 satellites to collect data on Earth’s clouds.  Unfortunately, these satellites are limited to only collecting data from above the clouds, which only paints half of the picture for scientists. They needed data from the ground to complete the picture. In 2018, they launched the first ever cloud challenge on GLOBE Clouds, which asked people all over the world to submit observations of clouds and photographs of their sky through the GLOBE Observer app. People responded faster than expected, submitting over 50,000 observations across 99 different countries during the month-long challenge. Because of the high volume,  it would take months for researchers alone to go through each submission. So instead, they sought help, thus birthing the Zooniverse CLOUD GAZE project, where people help them classify these photos.  Zooniverse participants classify the photos by cloud cover (what percent of the sky is covered by clouds), what type of cloud is in the image, and if they see any other conditions like haze, fog, or dust.

Why are clouds so important? 

We see the immediate effects of these clouds in our atmosphere. For example, when you go out on a sunny day and the sun gets blocked by low altitude clouds, you feel cooler right away. But rather than looking at short-term effects, the CLOUD GAZE project is working to understand the long-term role clouds play on our climate. 

Clouds play a significant role in maintaining Earth’s climate. They control Earth’s energy budget, the balance between the energy the Earth receives from the Sun and the energy the Earth loses back into outer space, which determines Earth’s temperature. The effects clouds have varies by type, size, and altitude. 

Credit: NASA GLOBE CLOUD GAZE

Cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus clouds are high altitude clouds that allow incoming radiation to be absorbed by Earth, then trap it there, acting like an insulator and increasing Earth’s temperature. Low altitude clouds, such as stratus and cumulonimbus, keep our planet from absorbing incoming radiation, and allow it to radiate energy back into space.

The classifications made by Zooniverse participants are needed to determine the amount of solar radiation that is reflected or absorbed by clouds before reaching the surface of Earth and how that correlates to climate over time. 

In my interview, I had the honor to meet with NASA Scientists Marilé Colón Robles and Tina Rogerson, learn more about the NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze effort, and hear their predictions for the future. 

Clip 1: Introductions

This first clip is of Marilé, Tina, and me introducing ourselves to one another. Note: The other participants you’ll see in the recordings are Sean Miller (Zooniverse designer and awesome mentor for us interns) and Dylan and Tasnova (my fellow interns).

Clip 2: What prompted you to start NASA GLOBE Cloud Gaze on Zooniverse? 

Quote from Tina from this Clip 2: “We have 1.8 million photographs of the sky. We want to know what’s in those photographs.”

Clip 3: What have your GLOBE participants been telling you about what they’re seeing in their local environments about the impacts of climate change?

What are your hopes and goals for this project? 

In the interview, I asked them about their hopes and broader goals for the project. They talked about how in order to really understand climate change, we need to gather the best data possible. The majority of the data we have on clouds are from the 20th century. One of the project goals was to update our databases on clouds in order to conduct proper research on climate change. Tina Rogerson, Cloud Gaze’s data analyst, gathers this information and compiles it into easily accessible files. The files include data from a range of different sources: satellites, Globe observations, and Zooniverse classifications (see https://observer.globe.gov/get-data). They give people a chance to analyze clouds at different points and connect the dots to analyze the whole.  

Scientist Marilé Colón Robles explained that one of the goals of the project is to make a climatology of cloud types based on the data they have collected. This would help us have a record on how the clouds have changed in a given location in relation to the climate of that area. We would have information on the entire world, every single continent, yes, including Antarctica.

Why did I pick this project to focus on? 

I chose this project because I wanted to challenge myself. I have always shied away from topics and conversations about climate change and global warming. I felt I could never fully comprehend it so I should instead avoid it by all means possible. My fellow interns and I had three projects to choose from: Transcribe Color Convention, Active Asteroids, and NASA GLOBE CLOUD GAZE. If it were any other day, I would have chosen one of the first two projects to be my focus but I wanted to change, to try something new. The only way to grow is to step out of your comfort zone and I am so glad I did. 

People make the mistake of believing that climate change can’t be helped and that after our Earth becomes inhabitable we can just pull a Lost In Space and find a different planet to live on. I had the chance to speak with Dr. Michelle B. Larson, CEO of Adler Planetarium, and we talked about how there isn’t another planet for us to go to if we mess this one up. Even if there was, it would take years and a lot of resources to ready the planet for ourselves. Those are resources and years that we could be spending on fixing our home. 

The CLOUD GAZE focused on one of the most important and understudied factors in Earth’s climate – clouds. People all over the world are helping in their own way to help save the planet. Some make sure to always recycle their garbage. Some take public transportation more often, and switch to electronic vehicles to cut down on their carbon footprint. You and I can help by taking pictures of our sky, submitting it in the GLOBE Observer app, and by going to the Zooniverse Cloud GAZE project, classifying as little as 10 images of clouds per day to multiply the data on clouds, which in turn helps further our research and our understanding of climate change.  

An Interview with Jovian Vortex Hunters

This is a guest post by summer intern Anastasia Unitt.

Talking about the weather is a national pastime in England. When I meet Dr. Ramana Sankar on a sunny day in Oxford, we find ourselves discussing dramatic clouds and ferocious storms – in stark contrast to the empty blue skies above us. Ramana is telling me about the turbulent meteorology of our solar system’s fifth planet: Jupiter.

Jupiter is a gas giant. Its atmosphere is made of very different stuff to ours, predominantly hydrogen and helium, but it does have clouds of water vapour like we do, as well a variety of storms and hurricanes. These vortices are governed by the same physics as Earth’s own, just on a much larger scale; Jupiter’s most famous storm, the Great Red Spot, is twice the width of Earth and has raged for over 300 years. Wind speeds on the planet can approach 900 miles per hour at its poles, encouraged by jet streams formed by the planet’s 10 hour long rotations – the fastest in our solar system. For those interested in meteorology, it’s a fascinating place to study.

Ramana tells me that to research Jupiter’s weather he works with a very important colleague: Juno, a space probe launched in 2011. Five years later in 2016 it reached Jupiter. Ever since, it has been sending back data, including images which show a diverse array of weather formations, varied in form, swirling, morphing, spinning. I’m surprised by how many different colours appear in these clouds, not only orange as I expected, but also shades of blue and grey. The enormous variety of features in the images provide an opportunity to learn more about how storms work on Jupiter, and Ramana explains that to do this they need to collect observations of the weather captured in Juno’s images. There are thousands of these pictures, so he has enlisted citizen scientists on Zooniverse to look through them and annotate features. They mark storms, clouds, and anything else they notice, building a catalogue of formations. With their help Ramana can spot repeating patterns, as well as explore unusual or rare vortices.

Swirling Jovian storms, in images captured by NASA’s Juno space probe.

I find myself wondering what causes this dramatic Jovian weather, and according to Ramana astronomers are curious about this too. To answer this question, he says we need to go back to how the planet was made: “long ago, the sun formed and around it was this disc of gas and dust, which contracted to form different planets.” This compression generated enormous amounts of heat; even now, the temperature at Jupiter’s core is thought to be about 24,000°C, maintained by high internal pressure due to its immense size. As Ramana puts it: “Imagine a boiling kettle. Bubbles are coming up due to the stove heating the bottom of the pan. The storms on Jupiter are these bubbles, but rather than forming over two minutes, they form over 5-10 years.” This is in contrast to Earth, where storms form due to heat from the sun. I ask Ramana what this internally-originating heat means for his study of Jupiter’s weather, and he explains that this is something he is exploring. “The question comes down to: why are these storms distributed at specific locations, why is the heat preferentially pointed one way versus the other? Getting the catalogue of vortices and seeing where they’re forming can help us.”

With this aim in mind, citizen scientists have classified over 35,000 photographs of Jupiter’s stormy surface. When I ask Ramana what their best finding has been so far, he pauses for a moment before he responds, clearly spoilt for choice amongst the many complex vortices they have observed. He eventually lands on one particular feature: “One of my favorite types of vortex is called a brown barge, and that’s because you’d imagine vortices are generally circular, but a brown barge is very elongated. Imagine a brown cucumber, that’s essentially what it is.” Ramana explains that precisely what causes this brown colouration is a mystery. It could be chemicals present in the clouds themselves, or haze particles in the upper layers of the atmosphere reacting with sunlight. However, the citizen scientists have made an interesting discovery about these formations: “Volunteers are finding barges which are not brown. So for all this time I thought that brown barges are brown, but it turns out there are more complications. Investigating these not-so-brown barges is a new avenue for research.”

Not-so-brown barges. On the left is an image of a typical brown barge. On the right are examples of barge-like vortices without the typical brown colouration.

When not enthusing about Jupiter’s (mostly) brown cucumber-shaped storms, Ramana is quick to point to his citizen scientists as one of his favourite parts of the project. They’ve gone above and beyond their role as storm counters; some have even been digging into additional data, outside of what Ramana has provided. “A lot of volunteers kind of go into the depths. They’re pulling in all of this data from everywhere else, like news websites, even mission reports, things like that. [The] volunteers go out of their way to explore the data by themselves.”

It sounds to me like the citizen scientists have been understandably bewitched by Jupiter’s diverse and spiraling cloud formations. On the Zooniverse talk boards I can see them excitedly discussing all kinds of interesting storms and features that they have discovered. Now they have built Ramana’s catalogue of storms, I enquire what his plans are for the next steps. “The idea is to create a subset of interesting features (like the not-so-brown barges), and then either use some sort of numerical weather modelling code to study how these features formed, or we could get context images to all of these features: look one rotation before, one rotation after. How did the feature morph between those 15 hours?” He’s excited about the findings – the volume of data the citizen scientists have analysed means there’s plenty to explore going forward.

It’s fascinating to hear how much these volunteers have contributed to our understanding of the weather on a planet 365 million miles away from our own. For a while Ramana and I discuss the motivations of citizen scientists. Is it a desire to learn, an attraction to science, or simply a way to pass the time? Ramana says from his experience it’s a mixture of the three. “The bottom line that I personally have heard about from people who have done Zooniverse projects is that they just want to spend five minutes of their time doing something else that’s not for their daily lives. Log in, classify a few things, get back to work.” Unfortunately it’s also time for Ramana and I to get back to work, so we part ways. However, as I’m walking under England’s blue and (currently) cloudless sky, I find I’m carrying thoughts of Jupiter’s distant swirling storms along with me.

Would you like to be a Jovian vortex hunter? Follow the link to take part in Ramana’s project: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/ramanakumars/jovian-vortex-hunter

Comic-Con and the Zooniverse

Guest post from Zooniverse participant Gracie Ermi:

San Diego Comic-Con brings together some of the biggest fans of the most popular shows, games, comics, and films. Science is a huge source of inspiration for a lot of pop culture, so myself and 14 other scientists from around the country decided that Comic-Con would be a great venue to showcase ways that science is making a difference in the world and how it relates to our favorite media. All 15 of us are national STEM ambassadors for the IF/THEN Initiative – a program focused on increasing access to diverse STEM professionals for students, especially young girls. In addition to putting on panels about the intersection of science and pop culture, we hosted a STEAM Fair (STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) that families in the area could attend even if they didn’t have Comic-Con tickets. At the STEAM Fair, each scientist demonstrated something from their specific field with a fun activity.

As a computer scientist who has worked on many wildlife conservation technology projects where data collection and annotation can be a big challenge, I am a huge fan of Zooniverse and the incredible generosity and human-power of this community. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if kids who came through the STEAM fair could contribute to a real, active science project? Zooniverse was the perfect tool to use to demonstrate the types of projects I work on and to show kids that they can make a difference right now in wildlife research. I had kids identify animal species in images from the Snapshot APNR project – they loved it! Families were super excited to learn about Zooniverse (I handed out stickers so that they could remember the website if they wanted to keep exploring it at home), and some kids spent quite a while at my table, meticulously narrowing in on the species they were identifying. Everyone seemed to really enjoy getting to help out the Snapshot APNR project, and in the end around 2000 people came through the STEAM Fair over the course of 4 days. It was a huge success!

IF/THEN Ambassadors at the Comic-Con STEAM Fair. Learn more about the team at ifthensteamsquad.org!

Gracie Ermi facilitating a Zooniverse data labeling activity at the IF/THEN Comic-Con STEAM Fair

Zooniverse-Based Activities for Undergraduates Are Here!

Our pilot-tested, research validated, Zooniverse-based activities for undergraduates are here and are ready for widespread use in your undergraduate science classrooms! These activities are 75-90 minutes long and are intended for use in introductory, undergraduate courses for non-science majors (or upper-level high school courses). These activities have been developed for use in either in-person courses or online courses through Google Docs. 

Geology/Biology/Environmental Science 101 with Floating Forests

In this activity, students learn about kelp forests in Tasmania in order to conduct an investigation into how marine ecosystems are impacted by small increases in ocean warming. Students use data generated by fellow citizen scientists in order to see how climate change has affected kelp forests specifically in Tasmania, Australia. In part one, students interpret graphs to draw conclusions about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and temperature, as well as learn about long term trends in Earth’s climate. Part two is intended to familiarize students with the Floating Forests platform. First, students practice classifying on a curated image set with a corresponding answer key. They will then be tasked with classifying images on the actual Floating Forests project. Part three uses data gathered by Floating Forests volunteers to introduce Tasmania, Australia as a case study of an ecosystem affected by climate change. 

Astronomy 101 with Planet Hunters

This is another three-part activity where students learn about the discovery and characterization of planetary systems outside of our Solar System. 

In part one, students use a lecture tutorial-style approach to learn about planetary transits and transit light curves. Students learn how important planetary properties such as orbital period and size can be approximated from specific features in a transit light curve. In the second part of this activity, students practice identifying transits (or dips) in a curated set of actual light curves. They will then receive feedback regarding whether or not they identified the transits successfully. Once the students have practiced, they classify on Planet Hunters – TESS, the current iteration of the Planet Hunters Project. Students get the opportunity to observe actual TESS light curves, and help the Planet Hunters research team identify potential planetary transits in those light curves. Finally, the activity concludes with a data driven investigation where students are presented with the complex research question, ‘Is our Solar System unique?’, and they will have to interpret data representations derived from the NASA Exoplanet Archive to form their own conclusion. 

A Little More About These Activities…

The Floating Forests and Planet Hunters-based classroom activities have been pilot tested with nearly 3,000 students across 14 colleges and universities. Survey data collected from participating students showed that completing either one of these two activities had statistically significant (positive) impacts on students’ ability to use data and evidence to answer scientific questions, on their ability to contribute in a meaningful way to science, and on their understanding that citizen science is a valuable tool that can be used to increase engagement in science. More than 70% of students claimed that these activities inspired them to come back and classify on additional Zooniverse projects! The results of these findings are being published in the Astronomy Education Journal (Simon et al., 2022, in review) and the Journal of Geophysics Education (Rosenthal et al., 2022, in prep). 

Additional feedback from pilot instructors indicated that these activities were easy to implement into new or existing introductory science courses. A few of our favorite instructor comments:

  1. “Being able to see and analyze the data and help with the entire research analysis process – students were very interested in that. They appreciated that it was real data. This is a real research project.” 
  2. “Well, there’s not enough time for me to say all the good things that I could say about Zooniverse. I think the benefit to the community, just the broader public, has been enormous. So I think these activities are fantastic, and sharing them, not only with colleges, but with high school and middle school educators, I think would be really beneficial. They’re fantastic.” 

The full activities and corresponding activity-synopses are available on the Zooniverse Classrooms Page (https://classroom.zooniverse.org)! The development and assessment of these activities were part of a larger NSF-funded effort, Award #1821319, Engaging Non-Science Majors in Authentic Research through Citizen Science. A final activity based around the Zooniverse project Planet Four will be coming soon! 

Also at classroom.zooniverse.org are two additional sets of materials, created through previous efforts:

  • Wildcam Labs
    • Designed for 11-13 year olds
    • The interactive map allows you to explore trail camera data and filter and download data to carry out analyses and test hypotheses. 
    • An example set of lessons based around Wildcam Labs, focused on using wildlife camera citizen science projects to engage students in academic language acquisition
    • Funded by HHMI and the San Diego Zoo
  • Astro101 with Galaxy Zoo
    • Designed for undergraduate non-major introductory astronomy courses
    • Students learn about stars and galaxies through 4 half-hour guided activities and a 15-20 hour research project experience in which they analyze real data (including a curated Galaxy Zoo dataset), test hypotheses, make plots, and summarize their findings. 
    • Funded by NSF

For both Wildcam Labs and Astro101 with Galaxy Zoo, instructors can set up private classrooms, invite students to join, curate data sets, and access guided activities and supporting educational resources. 

Science Scribbler: Key2Cat Update from Nanoparticle Picking Workflow

Science Scribbler: Key2Cat Update from Nanoparticle Picking Workflow

Hi!

This is the Science Scribbler Team with some exciting news from our latest project: Key2Cat! We have been blown away by the incredible support of this community – hundreds of you have taken part in the Key2Cat project (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/msbrhonclif/science-scribbler-key2cat) and helped to pick nanoparticles in our electron microscopy images of catalyst nanoparticles. In just 1 week, over 50,000 classifications were completed on 10,000 subjects and 170,000 nanoparticles and clusters were found!

Thank you for this huge effort!

We went through the data and prepared everything for the next step: classification. Getting the central coordinates of our nanoparticles and clusters with the correct class will allow us to improve our deep learning approach. But before getting into the details of the next steps, let’s recap what has been done so far using the gold on germanium (Au/Ge) data as an example.

PICKING CATALYST PARTICLES

In the first workflow, you were asked to pick out both nanoparticles and clusters using a marking tool, which looked something like this:

As you might have realized, each of the images was only a small piece of a whole image. We tiled the images so that they wouldn’t be so overwhelming and time-consuming for an individual volunteer to work with. We also built in some overlap between the tiles so that if a nanoparticle fell on the edge in one image, it would be in the centre in another. Each tile was then shown to 5 different volunteers so that we could form a consensus on the centres of nanoparticles and clusters.

CRUNCHING THROUGH THE DATA

With your enormous speed, the whole Au/Ge dataset (94 full size images) was classified in just a few days! We have collected all of your marks and sorted them into their corresponding tiles. If we consider just a single tile that has been looked at by 5 volunteers, this is what the output data looks like:


With some thinking and coding we can recombine all the tiles that make up a single image, including the marks placed by all volunteers that contributed to the image:

Recontructed marked image

Wow, you all are really good at picking out the catalyst particles! Seeing how precisely all centres have been picked out in this visualisation is quite impressive. You may notice that there are more than 5 marks per nanoparticle – this is because of the overlap that we mentioned earlier. When taking the overlap into consideration, this means that each nanoparticle should be seen (at least partially!) by 20 volunteers.

The next step is to combine all of the marks to find a consensus centre point for each nanoparticle so that we have one set of coordinates to work with. There are numerous ways of doing this. One of the first that has given us good results is an unsupervised k-means algorithm [1]. This algorithm looks at all of the marks on the image and tries to find clusters of marks that are close to each other. It then joins these marks up into a single mark by finding a weighted average of their placements. You can think of it like tug-of-war where the algorithm finds the centre point because more marks are pulling it there.  

Reconstructed image with centroids of marks

As you can see, the consensus based on your marks almost perfectly points at the centres of individual nanoparticles or nanoparticle clusters. We don’t yet know from this analysis if the nanoparticle is a part of a cluster or not, and in some cases, we also get marks in areas which are not nanoparticles as shown in the orange and red boxes above. Since only small parts of the overall image were shown in the marking task, the artifact in the orange box was mistaken as a nanoparticle and in the case of the red box, there is a mark at the very edge and on a very small dot-like instance where some of you might have been suspicious about another nanoparticle. This is expected, especially since we asked volunteers to place marks if they were unsure – we wanted to capture all possible instances of nanoparticles in this first step!

REFINING THE DATA

This is the part where the second workflow comes into play. Using the marks from the first workflow, we createda new dataset showing just a small area around the mark to collect more information.In this workflow we ask a few questions to help identify exactly what we see at each of the marks


With this workflow, we hope to classify all the nanoparticles and clusters of both the Au/Ge and Pd/C catalyst systems, while potential false marks can be cleaned up! Once this is accomplished, we’ll have all the required inputs to improve our deep learning approach.

We’re currently collecting classifications on the Au/Ge data and will soon switch over to the Pd/C data, so if you have a few spare minutes, we would be very happy if you left some classifications in our project! https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/msbrhonclif/science-scribbler-key2cat/classify

-Kevin & Michele


Got your interest? Do you have questions? Get in touch!

Talk: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/msbrhonclif/science-scribbler-key2cat/talk

References:

[1]: M. Ahmed, R. Seraj, S. M. S. Islam, Electronics (2020), 9 (8), 1295.

A Sky Full of Chocolate Sauce: Citizen Science with Aurora Zoo

by Dr. Liz MacDonald and Laura Brandt

Viewing the aurora in person is a magnificent experience, but due to location (or pesky clouds) it’s not always an option. Fortunately, citizen science projects like Aurorasaurus and Zooniverse’s Aurora Zoo make it easy to take part in aurora research from any location with an internet connection. 

The Aurorasaurus Ambassadors group was excited to celebrate Citizen Science Month by inviting Dr. Daniel Whiter of Aurora Zoo to speak at our April meeting. In this post we bring you the highlights of his presentation, which is viewable in full here

To ASK the Sky for Knowledge

Far to the north on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, three very sensitive scientific cameras gaze at a narrow patch of sky. Each camera is tuned to look for a specific wavelength of auroral light, snapping pictures at 20 or 32 frames per second. While the cameras don’t register the green or red light that aurora chasers usually photograph, the aurora dances dynamically across ASK’s images. Scientists are trying to understand more about what causes these small-scale shapes, what conditions are necessary for them to occur, and how energy is transferred from space into the Earth’s atmosphere. ASK not only sees night-time aurora, but also special “cusp aurora” that occur during the day but are only visible in extremely specific conditions (more or less from Svalbard in the winter.)

Still from Dr. Whiter’s presentation. The tiny blue square on the allsky image (a fisheye photo looking straight up) represents the field of view of the ASK cameras. The cameras point almost directly overhead. 

The setup, called Auroral Structure and Kinetics, or ASK, sometimes incorporates telescopes, similar to attaching binoculars to a camera. Project lead Dr. Daniel Whiter says, “The magnification of the telescopes is only 2x; the camera lenses themselves already provide a small field of view, equivalent to about a 280mm lens on a 35mm full frame camera. But the telescopes have a large aperture to capture lots of light, even with a small field of view.”

The challenge is that ASK has been watching the aurora for fifteen years and has amassed 180 terabytes of data. The team is too small to look through it all for the most interesting events, so they decided to ask for help from the general public. 

Visiting the Aurora Zoo

Using the Zooniverse platform, the Aurora Zoo team set up a project with which anyone can look at short clips of auroras to help highlight patterns to investigate further. The pictures are processed so that they are easier to look at. They start out black and white, but are given “false color” to help make them colorblind-friendly and easier for citizen scientists to work with. They are also sequenced into short video clips to highlight movement. To separate out pictures of clouds, the data is skimmed by the scientists each day and run through an algorithm.

Aurora Zoo participants are then asked to classify the shape, movement, and “fuzziness,” or diffuse quality, of the aurora. STEVE fans will be delighted by the humor in some of the options! For example, two of the more complex types are affectionately called “chocolate sauce” and “psychedelic kaleidoscope.” So far, Aurora Zoo citizen scientists have analyzed 7 months’ worth of data out of the approximately 80 months ASK has been actively observing aurora. Check out Dr. Whiter’s full presentation for a walkthrough on how to classify auroras, and try it out on their website!

Some of the categories into which Zooniverse volunteers classify auroral movement. Credit: Dr. Daniel Whiter.

What can be learned from Aurora Zoo is different from other citizen science projects like Aurorasaurus. For example, when several arc shapes are close to one another, they can look like a single arc to the naked eye or in a photo, but the tiny patch of sky viewed through ASK can reveal them to be separate features. These tiny details are also relevant to the study of STEVE and tiny green features in its “picket fence”.

Early (Surprising!) Results

Aurora Zoo participants blew through the most recent batch of data, and fresh data is newly available. The statistics they gathered show that different shapes and movements occur at different times of day. For example, psychedelic kaleidoscopes and chocolate sauce are more common in the evening hours. The fact that the most dynamic forms show up at night rather than in the daytime cusp aurora reveals that these forms must be connected to very active aurora on the night side of the Earth. 

Aurora Zoo participants also notice other structures. Several noted tiny structures later termed “fragmented aurora-like emissions,” or FAEs. Because of the special equipment ASK uses, the team was able to figure out that the FAEs they saw weren’t caused by usual auroral processes, but by something else. They published a paper about it, co-authored with the citizen scientists who noticed the FAEs. 

Still from Dr. Whiter’s presentation, featuring FAEs and Aurora Zoo’s first publication.

What’s next? Now that Aurora Zoo has a lot of classifications, they plan to use citizen scientists’ classifications to train a machine learning program to classify more images. They also look forward to statistical studies, and to creating new activities within Aurora Zoo like tracing certain shapes of aurora. 

STEVE fans, AuroraZoo hasn’t had a sighting yet. This makes sense, because ASK is at a higher latitude than that at which STEVE is usually seen. However, using a similar small-field technique to examine the details of STEVE has not yet been done. It might be interesting to try and could potentially yield some important insights into what causes FAEs.

Citizen Science Month, held during April of each year, encourages people to try out different projects. If you love the beautiful Northern and Southern Lights, you can help advance real aurora science by taking part in projects like Aurora Zoo and Aurorasaurus

About the authors of this blog post: Dr. Liz MacDonald and Laura Brandt lead a citizen science project called Aurorasaurus. While not a Zooniverse project, Aurorasaurus tracks auroras around the world via real-time reports by citizen scientist aurora chasers on its website and on Twitter. Aurorasaurus also conducts outreach and education across the globe, often through partnerships with local groups of enthusiasts.  Aurorasaurus is a research project that is a public-private partnership with the New Mexico Consortium supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Learn more about NASA citizen science here

Engaging Faith-based Communities in Citizen Science through Zooniverse

Engaging Faith-based Communities in Citizen Science through Zooniverse was an initiative designed to broaden participation in people-powered research (also referred to as citizen science) among religious and interfaith communities by helping them to engage with science through Zooniverse. Citizen science is a powerful way to build positive, long-term relationships across diverse communities by “putting a human face” on science and scientists. Participating in real scientific research is a great way to learn about the process of science as well as the scientists who conduct research.

The Engaging initiative provided models for how creative partnerships can be formed between scientific and religious communities that empower more people to become collaborators in the quest for knowledge. It included integrating Zooniverse projects into seminary classes as well as adult, youth, and intergenerational programs of religious communities; and promoting Zooniverse among interfaith communities concerned with environmental justice. Among other things, the project’s evaluation highlighted the need for scientists to do a better job of engaging with religious audiences in order to address racial and gender disparities in science. I encourage Zooniverse research teams to check out the series of short videos recently released by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion to help scientists engage more effectively with communities of faith. By interacting personally with these communities and helping to “put a human face” on science, you may not only increase participation in your research projects, but help in the effort to diversify science in general.

Despite the difficulties imposed by the pandemic, I’m encouraged by what the Engaging initiative achieved, and the possibilities for expanding its impact in the future! The summary article of this project was published on March 28, 2022 by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D.

The project team thanks the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for supporting this project. Any opinions, findings, or recommendations expressed are those of the project team and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sloan Foundation.