Friday, August 19, 2011

Tell NASA Where to Send A Speeding Spacecraft

Four years ago NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft towards Pluto.  The craft was designed as light as possible so it could travel this long distance faster than any other craft previously launched.  On the bad side this means there is not enough fuel on board to stop and orbit once it reaches the planet; New Horizons has to take it's measurements and keep on going.  But the good news is now New Horizons can be steered toward a treasure trove of smaller worlds past Pluto (called Kuiper Belt Objects) that have never been visited before and which are shrouded in much mystery.  As we are told by the IceHunters web site, the spacecraft will " the KBO with high resolution images, investigate its composition using infrared spectroscopy and four-color maps, and look for an atmosphere and moons."

Kuiper Belt Objects are a collection of minor planets, comets, and asteroids They have been theorized for a long time but were only first seen in 1992.  While  over 1,000 more have been identified since then, much is still not known about them and there are many more waiting to be discovered.   So while flybys are planned NASA doesn't know enough to decide where to actually send it.   Once New Horizons passes Pluto NASA will decide which KBO (or KBOs) are best to visit, and we need to help this task by finding new KBOs in New Horizons potential path and identify them for further review by NASA planners.  And you can help.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the New Horizons: IceHunters web page to register and create an account, or just log in with an existing Zooniverse account.
  2. Click on The Science to learn how to identify potential Kuiper Belt Objects and other Asteroids from the images collected for the project. 
  3. Click on "Do Science" and review the image carefully. Mark any potential KBOs (which look like white blobs) with the "Mark Blobs" cursor and any potential asteroid streaks with the "Mark Streaks" cursor. If you have trouble seeing these features you can also "Change Contrast" for a different view. 
  4. If you are interested each image also allows you to comment on the overall quality of each image. While not a part of the technical data being collected it will help project scientists improve the quality for future images and identify problems that may impact the project results. 
  5. Once you've fully scanned each image click on "Done Marking" to save the data and load the next image.  

That's all there is to it. As you can see this is probably one of the simplest interfaces of any Zooniverse project so far. Most people should be able to visit the first time without knowing any more than what's in this blog post and start providing valuable data in less than five minutes. Even though this project doesn't offer the fancy animations and tutorial videos of other projects in this case they really aren't needed anyway.

One interesting part of this project is the project's ultimate goal...deciding where to send a spacecraft already rocketing through the solar system. So not only does the project create useful science data but participants can actually see the results when the craft visits an object identified by participants. That future feedback helps set IceHunters apart and makes it a worthy project for any new or experienced citizen scientist.