Category Archives: News

NASA and Zooniverse Announce Partnership

We’re very happy to announce a new partnership between NASA and our Zooniverse teams at the Adler Planetarium and the University of Minnesota. This new partnership advances and deepens our existing relationship and efforts with NASA. Our team will work together with NASA to create new opportunities for the Zooniverse volunteer community to engage and participate in projects that span the wide range of NASA’s science divisions: astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and earth science.

This new NASA grant will enable new projects as well as provide support for our developers to maintain our research-enabling platform. This support is very welcome, and will help us share our platform with a growing number of scientists who want to unlock data from NASA’s missions, centers, and projects. We’re really looking forward to building and launching these new projects, but don’t worry — nothing else will change. The platform will still be a welcome home to a wide range of research and projects.

It’s been more than a decade now since the Zooniverse launched, and it’s exciting to have reached the point where the Zooniverse platform, research teams, and AMAZING community of volunteers are consistently recognized as valuable contributors and collaborators in research.  The Zooniverse team is excited for this partnership and for the future ahead — here’s to lots more adventures to come!

The Zooniverse: A Quick starter guide for research teams

Over the past several months, we’ve welcomed thousands of new volunteers and dozens of new teams into our community.

This is wonderful.

Because there are new people arriving every day, we want to take this opportunity to (re)introduce ourselves, provide an overview of how Zooniverse works, and give you some insight on the folks who maintain the platform and help guide research teams through the process of building and running projects.

Who are we?

The core Zooniverse team is based across three institutions:

  • Oxford University, Oxford UK
  • The Adler Planetarium, Chicago IL
  • The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis MN

We also have collaborators at many other institutions worldwide. Our team is made up of web developers, research leads, data scientists, and a designer.

How we build projects

Research teams can build Zooniverse projects in two ways.

First, teams can use the Project Builder to create their very own Zooniverse project from scratch, for free. In order to launch publicly and be featured on zooniverse.org/projects, teams must go through beta review, wherein a team of Zooniverse volunteer beta testers give feedback on the project and answer a series of questions that tell us whether the project is 1) appropriate for the platform; and 2) ready to be launched. Anyone can be a beta tester! To sign up, visit https://www.zooniverse.org/settings/email. Note: the timeline from requesting beta review to getting scheduled in the queue to receiving beta feedback is a few weeks. It can then take a few weeks to a few months (depending on the level of changes needed) to improve your project based on beta feedback and be ready to apply for full launch. For more details and best practices around using the Project Builder, see https://help.zooniverse.org/getting-started/.

The second option is for cases where the tools available in the Project Builder aren’t quite right for the research goals of a particular team. In these cases, they can work with us to create new, custom tools. We (the Zooniverse team) work with these external teams to apply for funding to support design, development, project management, and research.

Those of you who have applied for grant funding before will know that this process can take a long time. Once we’ve applied for a grant, it can take 6 months or more to hear back about whether or not our efforts were successful. Funded projects usually require at least 6 months to design, build, and test, depending on the complexity of the features being created. Once new features are created, we then need additional time to generalize (and often revise) them for inclusion in the Project Builder toolkit.

To summarize:

Option 1: Project Builder

  • Free!
  • Quick!
  • Have to work with what’s available (no customization of tools or interface design)

Option 2: Custom Project

  • Funding required
  • Can take a longer time
  • Get the features you need!
  • Supports future teams who may also benefit from the creation of these new tools!

We hope this helps you to decide which path is best for you and your research goals.

SuperWASP Variable Stars – Update

The following is an update from the SuperWASP Vairable Stars research team. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Spring 2020 update! In this blog, we will be sharing some updates and discoveries from the SuperWASP Variable Stars project.

What are we aiming to do?

We are trying to discover the weirdest variable stars!

Stars are the building blocks of the Universe, and finding out more about them is a cornerstone of astrophysics. Variable stars (stars which change in brightness) are incredibly important to learning more about the Universe, because their periodic changes allow us to probe the underlying physics of the stars themselves.

We have asked citizen scientists to classify variable stars based on their photometric light curves (the amount of light over time), which helps us to determine what type of variable star we’re observing. Classifying these stars serves two purposes: firstly to create large catalogues of stars of a similar type which allows us to determine characteristics of the population; and secondly, to identify rare objects displaying unusual behaviour, which can offer unique insights into stellar structure and evolution.

We have 1.6 million variable stars detected by the SuperWASP telescope to classify, and we need your help! By getting involved, we can build up a better idea of what types of stars are in the night sky.

What have we discovered so far?

We’ve done some initial analysis on the first 300,000 classifications to get a breakdown of how many of each type of star is in our dataset.

So far it looks like there’s a lot of junk light curves in the dataset, which we expected. The programme written to detect periods in variable stars often picks up exactly a day or a lunar month, which it mistakes for a real period. Importantly though, you’ve classified a huge number of real and exciting light curves!

We’re especially excited to do some digging into what the “unknown” light curves are… are there new discoveries hidden in there? Once we’ve completed the next batch of classifications, we’ll do some more to see whether the breakdown of types of stars changes.

An exciting discovery…

In late 2018, while building this Zooniverse project, we came across an unusual star. This Northern hemisphere object, TYC-3251-903-1, is a relatively bright object (V=11.3) which has previously not been identified as a binary system. Although the light curve is characteristic of an eclipsing contact binary star, the period is ~42 days, notably longer than the characteristic contact binary period of less than 1 day.

Spurred on by this discovery, we identified a further 16 candidate near-contact red giant eclipsing binaries through searches of archival data. We were excited to find that citizen scientists had also discovered 10 more candidates through this project!

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of a contact binary star [Mark A. Garlick] Over the past 18 months, we’ve carried out an observing campaign of these 27 candidate binaries using telescopes from across the world. We have taken multi-colour photometry using The Open University’s own PIRATE telescope, and the Las Cumbres Observatory robotic telescopes, and spectroscopy of Northern candidates with the Liverpool Telescope, and Southern candidates using SALT. We’ve also spent two weeks in South Africa on the 74-inch telescope to take further spectroscopy.

Of the 10 candidate binaries discovered by citizen scientists, we were happy to be able to take spectroscopic observations for 8 whilst in South Africa, and we have confirmed that at least 2 are, in fact, binaries! Thank you citizen scientists!

Why is this discovery important?

Figure 2: V838 Mon and its light echo [ESA/NASA]

The majority of contact or near-contact binaries consist of small (K/M dwarf) stars in close orbits with periods of less than 1 day. But for stars in a binary in a contact binary to have such long periods requires both the stars to be giant. This is a previously unknown configuration…

Interestingly, a newly identified type of stellar explosion, known as a red nova, is thought to be caused by the merger of a giant binary system, just like the ones we’ve discovered.

Red novae are characterised by a red colour, a slow expansion rate, and a lower luminosity than supernovae. Very little is known about red novae, and only one has been observed pre-nova, V1309 Sco, and that was only discovered through archival data. A famous example of a possible red nova is the 2002 outburst in V838 Mon. Astronomers believe that this was likely to have been a red nova caused by a binary star merger, forming the largest known star for a short period of time after the explosion.

So, by studying these near-contact red giant eclipsing binaries, we have an unrivalled opportunity to identify and understand binary star mergers before the merger event itself, and advance our understanding of red novae.

What changes have we made?

Since the SuperWASP Variable Stars Zooniverse project started, we’ve made a few changes to make the project more enjoyable. We’ve reduced the number of classifications needed to retire a target, and we’ve also reduced the number of classifications of “junk” light curves needed to retire it. This means you should see more interesting, real, light curves.

We’ve also started a Twitter account, where we’ll be sharing updates about the project, the weird and wacky light curves you find, and getting involved in citizen science and astronomy communities. You can follow us here: www.twitter.com/SuperWASP_stars

What’s next?

We still have thousands of stars to classify, so we need your help!

Once we have more classifications, we will be beginning to turn the results into a publicly available, searchable website, a bit like the ASAS-SN Catalogue of Variable Stars (https://asas-sn.osu.edu/variables). Work on this is likely to begin towards the end of 2020, but we’ll keep you updated.

We’re also working on a paper on the near-contact red giant binary stars, which will include some of the discoveries by citizen scientists. Expect that towards the end of 2020, too.

Otherwise, watch this space for more discoveries and updates!

We would like to thank the thousands of citizen scientists who have put time into this Zooniverse project. If you ever have any questions or suggestions, please get in touch.

Heidi & the SuperWASP Variable Stars team.

We Are Still here

These are strange times we live in. With many people ill or worried, and communities all over the world in lockdown or cutting out social contact in order to try and control the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s hard to work out what the future holds.

The Zooniverse team – including our teams in Oxford and in Chicago – are all working from home, and we’re struggling to master how to communicate and work in this odd situation. So far we’ve encountered all sorts of weird glitches while trying to keep in touch.

Zoom backgrounds can be weird and terrifying, as demonstrated here by Sam.
Why am I the only one with a profile picture?

But we are still here! As we know lots of you are turning to Zooniverse for a distraction while your lives are disrupted, we’ve asked our research teams to pay particular attention to their projects and to be even more present online during this time. We’ll try and bring you more news from them over the next few weeks.

Anyway, if any of you would like to distract yourselves by taking part and contributing to one of our projects, we’ve made it easier to find a new project to dive into. The top of our projects page now highlights selected projects – they will change frequently, and might be topical, timely, particularly in need of your help – or just our favourites!

Zooniverse projects succeed because they’re the collective work of many thousands of you who come together to collaborate with our research teams – and a little bit of collective action in the world right now feels pretty good.

Look after yourselves, and see you in the Zooniverse.

Chris

Cross-Post — Lessons from Space: Why Delay a Launch?

Today’s cross-post is from ChelseaTroy.com, blog site of one of our Zooniverse developers. Chelsea writes codes for open source projects like our Zooniverse Citizen Science Mobile App and NASA Landsat Image Processing Pipeline. She also teaches Mobile Software Development at the Master’s Program in Computer Science at the University of Chicago.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:50 p.m. EST on March 6, 2020, carrying the uncrewed cargo Dragon spacecraft on its journey to the International Space Station for NASA and SpaceX’s 20th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-20) mission. Dragon will deliver more than 5,600 pounds of science investigations and cargo to the orbiting laboratory. Credit: NASA and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CRS-20_launch.jpg

Chelsea was selected as a NASA Social appointee to attend the launch of last week’s CRS-20 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (this included attending the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, meeting w/ NASA’s social media team, touring NASA facilities at Kennedy, meeting with experts, and more). Check out all her posts on instagram, twitter, and chelseatroy.com.

This post of Chelsea’s, on why the launch was delayed, resonated in particular with us as a web development team. Across many fields, the lessons and insights around the role of deadlines, the value of redundancy, learning from past experiences/mistakes to make better predictions and mitigate risk, etc. apply.

Check out the full post at https://chelseatroy.com/2020/02/27/lessons-from-space-why-delay-a-launch/. Enjoy!

Who’s who in the Zoo – Bart Elen

In the first Who’s who in the Zoo of 2020, meet Bart from the Eye for Diabetes project

– Helen

 


Bart - Bart Elen

Project: Eye for Diabetes

Researcher: Bart Elen

Location: Health department, VITO, Belgium

 

What are your main research interests?

Data science, deep learning, analysis of retinal images, Internet of things

 

Who else is in your project team? What are their roles?

Patrick De Boever (VITO), Project Leader

Carina Veeckman (VUB), User Engagement

Sven De Boeck (VUB), Science Communication

Luk Buyse, President of Diabetes Liga

 

Tell us more about the data used in your project

We use retinal fundus images collected by the EyePACS screening network for Diabetic Retinopathy.

 

How do Zooniverse volunteers contribute to your research? 

The Zooniverse volunteers look for lesions on the fundus images, caused by Diabetic Retinopathy.

 

What have been the biggest challenges in setting up your project?

It was challenging to design our project to enable everyone to perform the challenging labelling task of finding the lesions caused by Diabetic Retinopathy. We took a number of approaches to make this possible, including writing a good tutorial, a training module and augmenting our images.

 

What discoveries, and other outputs, has your project led to so far?

The volunteer labels have led to an improvement in our algorithm for automatically detecting lesions. Our project has also had a lot of media coverage in Flanders.

 

Once you’ve finished collecting data, what research questions do you hope to be able to answer?

The new data labels will enable the creation of better computer models for the automatic detection of lesions caused by Diabetic Retinopathy. We hope that these models will enable a more consistent diagnoses of Diabetic Retinopathy by ophthalmologists, and a better follow-up of the disease progress.

 

What’s in store for your project in the future?

In the future, there will be more labeled data, the creation of a better computer model for the automated detection of Diabetic Retinopathy lesions, and the release of the newly created label dataset to the research community.

 

What are your favourite other citizen research projects and why?

The “Radio Meteor Zoo” project on Zooniverse. Speaking to the creators of this project convinced us to choose the Zooniverse platform for our own citizen science project.

 

What guidance would you give to other researchers considering creating a citizen research project?

Contact the teams running existing citizen science projects. You will learn a lot from their experiences.

 

And finally, when not at work, where are we most likely to find you?

I like go running, follow MOOCS, play board games, and watch tv.

 


 

You can learn more about Eye for Diabetes here (note, this website is in Dutch)

 

 

 

Zooniverse is 10 today!

Zooniverse is ten years old! On 12th December 2009, Zooniverse.org sputtered into life, celebrated with a post on this very blog (https://blog.zooniverse.org/2009/12/12/the-zooniverse-is-go/). Truth be told, there wasn’t a huge amount to show – the only project there was our first, Galaxy Zoo, which had been running for a couple of years by that point. What a contrast to today’s bustling home page, with 229 live projects for you to choose from. Early in 2010 two new projects – Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo – were launched, before Old Weather became our first project based here on Earth instead of out in the cosmos.

To celebrate, we’re redoubling our efforts to reach two million volunteers. We’re about 50,000 short, so if every one in twenty of you invites a friend to join in we’ll be there in no time. We have a prize lined up for the lucky two millionth, and anyone who classifies on any project on that auspicious day will go into a draw for some Zooniverse swag.

Birthdays are also time for reflection. To be honest, I was a bit surprised when I realised that we were approaching this milestone birthday. Galaxy Zoo had arrived with a big bang, a sudden explosion of effort, but as the above description suggests Zooniverse grew more slowly, as project after project was added to our nascent platform. Over the years, we rebuilt the codebase (more than once), projects came and went, and the army of Zooniverse volunteers grew in strength and in numbers. Looking back, though, the decision we made to launch Zooniverse set in stone some important principles that still guide us today.

For starters, it meant that we were committed to building a universe of projects which volunteers could move easily between. Projects which were lucky enough to get publicity – featuring on BBC Stargazing Live, for example – thus benefited other projects by bringing new people into the Zooniverse community. We built a shared codebase, so that funding for a particular project could support the development of code that benefited everyone. For most participants, their experience of the Zooniverse is limited to the project they’re participating in, whether it involves penguins, papyri or planets, but these network effects have been hugely important in sustaining such a rich variety of projects for a decade.

We’ve always tried to make it as easy as possible for researchers to build the best projects they can imagine, investing in the project builder tool that now supports all of the projects listed on our homepage. The choice – made early – to present the Zooniverse as a tool that’s free for researchers to use has caused problems; we are almost completely dependent on grant funding, which is a risky way to run a railroad, to say the least. But it has meant that those researchers, often early in their careers, have been able to turn to Zooniverse for help without reservation, and I think we’ve had better results – and more fun – as a consequence. 

There have been so many great moments over the last ten years, but just for a bit of fun here are my top 3 favourites:

  1. First hearing the Solar Stormwatch results were good – realising the method doesn’t just work for Galaxy Zoo.
  2. Climbing up a hill in the Antarctic to retrieve Penguin Watch data.
  3. The morning where we thought Higgs Hunters volunteers had discovered something truly remarkable (sadly it turned out they hadn’t).

So here’s to ten years of the Zooniverse. At any point in the last decade, I’d have been wrong if I’d tried to predict what the next few years would bring. I’m looking forward to more adventures and surprises in our second decade!

Chris

PS I can’t possibly list all of the people who were instrumental in building and guiding the project over the years, but I hope the team will forgive me for mentioning Arfon Smith, my co-founder and the technical genius behind the Zooniverse’s first few years, Lucy Fortson, whose wisdom we’ve relied on from the start, and Lauras Whyte and Trouille who have in turn led the Adler team in Chicago through this mad decade. Special thanks too to the volunteers – all of you – but especially Elisabeth Baeten, Jules Wilkinson, and PMason, whose spirit and generosity is a constant source of wonder and inspiration. 

Panoptes CLI 1.1 now available

I recently released version 1.1 of the Panoptes CLI – the command-line interface for managing Zooniverse projects. This update includes some exciting new features. Here are the highlights.

You can install the update by running pip install -U panoptescli. Any bugs or issues should be raised via GitHub. See the changelog for the full list of changes.

Resuming failed subject uploads

This one adds what is probably the CLI’s most requested feature: the ability to resume a failed upload from where it left off, without duplicating subjects or requiring manual changes to the manifest. I hope this will be a huge help to researchers, especially when uploading large manifests.

If the upload fails for any reason – whether that’s an issue with our systems, a problem with your internet connection, a bug in the CLI itself, or if you just decide to stop the upload by pressing ctl-c – the CLI will detect that there was a problem and will ask you if you want to be able to resume the upload later. If you say yes, it will then save a new manifest in YAML format containing the remaining upload queue along with all of the upload’s command line options. Then to resume, you just start a new upload with the YAML manifest instead of the original CSV.

Multithreaded subject uploads

Uploading new subjects can often take a long time. The total upload time depends not only on your internet connection speed, but also on the time it takes for the CLI to talk to the Panoptes API. Creating a new subject typically requires the CLI to make two HTTP requests: one to create the subject and one to upload the subject’s media (the image, or video, or whatever). If the subject has multiple images then that only increases the number of requests. Plus subjects need to be linked to the subject set; this happens in batches, but it can still add up to a lot of requests for large uploads. If you’re uploading 10,000 subjects for example, that means the CLI has to make a minimum of 20,000 requests (probably more), and each of those requests includes some overhead where the CLI is waiting for the server to respond, which is all basically wasted time.

Luckily the Panoptes CLI 1.1 gets around that, by taking advantage of the multithreading features of the Panoptes Client for Python which were released earlier this year. Now, those 20,000 requests will happen five at a time, so for example three of them can be sending data while two of them are waiting for the server, meaning your internet connection is fully utilised the whole time and no time is wasted. In my testing, this substantially sped up subject uploads, potentially saving hours of your time.

Adding and removing lists of subjects to and from subject sets

Often project owners need to add large numbers of existing subjects to a new set, or remove subjects from their current set. It was possible to do this with the previous version of the CLI by passing subject IDs on the command-line, but it was often difficult to modify large numbers of subjects this way (it was possible with xargs on Linux and macOS, but this isn’t the most intuitive way to do it).

Now, there’s a new option to pass a list of IDs in a text file rather than having to specify IDs on the command-line. (The old way is still there too if you prefer to do it that way!) Just produce a text file containing the relevant subject IDs, one per line. If you already have the subject information in a spreadsheet, exporting a CSV file with just the subject ID column will produce the right file (just make sure it only contains the one column).

For example, if you have a file called subject_ids.csv containing the following:

1234
5678
9012

You can run:

panoptes subject-set add-subjects -f subject_ids.csv 1357

to add subjects 1234, 5678, and 9012 to subject set 1357.

 

Edited 29 November 2019: Fixed typo in pip command for upgrade.

ESA Image of the Week created by Zooniverse volunteer


Main-belt asteroid 2001 SE101 passing in front of the Crab Nebula (M1). The streak appears curved due to Hubble’s orbital motion around the Earth. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Thévenot (@AstroMelina); CC BY 4.0

Last week, the European Space Agency released the above Image of the Week from the Hubble Asteroid Hunter project. It shows an asteroid passing in front of the Crab Nebula, M1, an image found in the ESA HST archives by citizen scientist Melina Thevenot, who created a colour image of it. 

Hubble Asteroid Hunter was created using our Zooniverse Panoptes platform by a team of researchers from the European Space Agency, and launched on International Asteroid Day (30 June 2019) with the aim of identifying serendipitous observations of asteroids in archival Hubble data. Over the almost three decades of observations, HST provided a vast wealth of images that are available in the archives. Many of these images targeting far away galaxies or clusters contain photobombing asteroids, passing in front of the intended targets (for example asteroids passing in front of Abell 370 cluster in the Hubble Frontier Fields – https://hubblesite.org/contents/media/images/2017/33/4082-Image.html?keyword=Asteroids) . Rather than being a nuisance, astronomers realised that the images can be used to better characterise the asteroids themselves and determine their orbits. 

A pipeline was set up in ESA’s discovery portal (ESA Sky – https://sky.esa.int/) that matches the asteroids’ predicted positions in both time and space from the IAU Minor Planet Center database with the European HST archival images. The predicted positions of these objects, nevertheless, have some uncertainties as the ephemerides are not always known to great precision. This is a great opportunity for citizen scientists to inspect Hubble images and mark the positions of the trails. Knowing the exact positions of the trails allows researchers to update the ephemerides of the asteroids, and better characterise their orbits. This is important, especially for Near-Earth Objects, which can be potentially hazardous for the Earth. 

So far, over 1900 citizen scientists participated in the project, providing over 300,000 classifications. The project was extended with images from the ecliptic plane to search for potentially unknown asteroids, and with other longer exposure archival images to search for possible past interstellar visitors, such as 2I/Borisov. The volunteers have the chance of exploring beautiful Hubble images of galaxies, clusters and  gravitational lenses with these new images! 

Happy asteroid hunting on www.asteroidhunter.org

UKRI Citizen Science Exploration Grants

UK Research and Innovation have announced a scheme to support citizen science projects, focused especially on new and innovative uses. It seems like an excellent opportunity to experiment, or to work on designing a new project and we hope it persuades many more people to take the plunge and start using citizen science approaches in their research. More details at https://www.ukri.org/funding/funding-opportunities/citizen-science-exploration.

We at Zooniverse would be keen to help any UK-based researchers thinking of applying for such a grant – if you’re interested, or would like to discuss how you might use the Zooniverse platform, contact Grant Miller : grant@zooniverse.org