How the Crowd is Exploring the Moon
Citizen scientists are exploring the moon in unprecedented detail. To date, they have classified millions of images, helping researchers understand more about our nearest neighbor in space.
Zooniverse, United Kingdom
The last time humans set foot on the moon was in 1972 with Apollo 17, the final mission of the Apollo lunar landing program. Since astronaut Eugene Cernan climbed back into the lunar module Challenger, an assorted bunch of sample return missions, rovers and surveying craft have been studying and probing the lunar surface in great detail.
Avoiding Data Overwhelm
There is a lot of lunar data and information to be studied, far too much for scientists to handle on their own. The Moon Zoo project is a crowdsourcing initiative whereby members of the public support astrophysics research by studying high resolution images of the lunar surface taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. They are on the hunt for previously unseen craters and boulders. It may well be the next best thing to actually walking on the moon and picking up lunar rocks!
Anybody can take part once they have created a free account on the Moon Zoo website. Following a few training videos, users peruse images whenever they have the time. Their tasks include counting craters, identifying boulders and generally noting what they see. Although this may sound like a job that computers can do, Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott who set up the project told NPR: “Computers don't make discoveries. They don't point at the thing in the corner and ask the question: What's that?”
The amateur scientists have a suite of software tools to help them in their quest. They include a crater marking tool that lets them easily identify those places on the lunar surface that have been hit by rocks, pebbles and other objects.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter blasted off from the Earth in June 2009, and its first moon images were published a month later. The Moon Zoo crowdsourcing initiative studies pictures from the first six months of the mission, and there are plenty more waiting in reserve. Each image receives multiple independent classifications to improve confidence in the results.
Once the pictures have been classified they are analysed by the Moon Zoo team to ensure the most meaningful results are kept. And in the spirit of open science, these will eventually be made public for anyone to use. As of June 2014, nearly 4 million images have been categorized.
According to Lintott, the work of the citizen scientists is as good as anything an expert may deliver, and researchers are already committed to using them in their studies.
Citizen science projects such as Moon Zoo are a boon to both the scientific community and to participants. Members of the public get a front row seat to watch fascinating research unfold, and know that they are helping to improve the sum total of our knowledge, Researchers receive quality, reliable data in a truncated time frame, plus they are freer to pursue other aspects of their research.
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