Research by NASA has shown that amateurs are as good as professionals when comes to finding craters on the Moon. A recent study confirmed that craters on the Moon, among other worlds, could be mapped reliably by amateurs. This finding could lead to new opportunities for amateur scientists who want to help astronomers.
A recent study by University of Colorado-Boulder researchers tested the ability of volunteers to find craters on the Moon. The volunteer work was compared to professional analysis by scientists with up to 50 years of experience. The study showed that amateur counters are just as good as professionals at identifying craters in photographs.
Stuart Robbins of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder managed the study. Robbins conducted the research in partnership with the CosmoQuest MoonMappers project.
Volunteers in the MoonMappers project analyzed high-resolution images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and counted the number of craters 18 pixels are larger. That size is the rough equivalent of 35 feet (11 meters) in diameter. The study compared the average number of craters identified by thousands of volunteers with the counts reported by eight professional crater counters.
CosmoQuest organizes amateur scientists to study NASA photographs and count craters on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid Vesta. Robbins said that citizen-scientists were helping to map the lunar surface, work that could be useful in planning future moon missions. Details of the crater mapping studied were published in the science journal Icarus.
Volunteers can count craters anywhere that they have Web access so the work is flexible. CosmoQuest uses tutorials and guides to help educate potential volunteers. The CosmoQuest site allows volunteers who sign up to help count asteroids on the Moon, Mercury, or on the asteroid Vesta. The team at CosmoQuest has recently begun to look at three terabytes of Mercury data from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft.
The crater counting initiative uses photographs obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The spacecraft was launched in 2009 to map the lunar surface, which may host as many as 500 million craters over 35 feet in diameter. That was the lower limit on what volunteers were asked to identify.
The CosmoQuest site also hosts a human versus machine test. Viewers can test their crater counting skills against those of a computer.
Robbins hopes that the study leads to citizen-scientist work on mapping Mars and Mercury in the same way. This work would allow space scientists more time for public education efforts. Pamela Gay, founder of CosmoQuest said that amateur help on these projects could be a boon in a time of shrinking budgets. The fact that amateurs mapped moon craters as well as professionals shows that NASA could depend on citizen scientists in other, similar efforts.
The University of Colorado study could lead to much more use of amateur scientists in planetary mapping projects. Crowdsourcing gives astronomers potential access to thousands of volunteers. Passing on this sort of tedious counting and checking would allow experienced researchers to invest more time in high-level research activities.
Crater mapping is useful on worlds like the Moon because there is minimal erosion and no movement in the crust. The higher the crater count, the older the world is likely to be.
Astronomy is one of the few branches of science where amateurs can still make significant contributions to the established body of knowledge. This new finding could pave the way for additional contributions from amateur astronomers.
Citizen scientists have long been involved in research. In recent decades computers and online communication tools have just given the dedicated amateur more ways to help out professional scientists. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has appealed to citizens for help with screening data for evidence of an attempt to communicate. NASA has recruited citizens to help in the hunt for planet’s outside Earth’s solar system.
In a newer initiative, NASA is recruiting volunteers to help find asteroids. The space agency just announced a contest aimed at programmers who want to help improve the search algorithms now used to search photographs for asteroids.
The finding that amateurs mapped moon craters as well as professional scientists opens up new possibilities for NASA to recruit volunteer scientists.
By Chester Davis