June 21, 2011 at 4:40 PM ET
The past decade has brought a whole new frontier of icy worlds to explore on the edge of our solar system — and now you can get in on the exploration as well, through IceHunters.org, the latest citizen-science project from Zooniverse.
Hundreds of thousands of Internet users have signed up for past Zooniverse projects — to classify galaxies, or count lunar craters, or spot solar storms, or identify potential planets orbiting alien stars, based on data from previous astronomical observations. This project is different: For the first time, amateurs can help identify future targets for a NASA interplanetary flyby — in this case, for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.
Right now, the New Horizons team's top job is getting ready for the 2015 flyby past Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. But the Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, principal investigator for the $700 million mission, said he and his colleagues are already looking for follow-up targets in the Kuiper Belt, the wide disk of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. Those targets will have to be selected before the Pluto encounter takes place.
"We'll have four years to find the objects, find the orbits, learn about them and choose the best one or two to fly by," Stern told me today.
Scientists are poring over telescope images to look for the candidates: Kuiper Belt objects, or KBOs, that are smaller than Pluto but still substantial. These icy worlds could reveal more about the origins and the geography of the planetary frontier, but there's only so much that even the professionals can do. The Zooniverse team suggested that citizen scientists could contribute to the cause, and Stern decided that enlisting Internet users would be feasible and fun.
"Maybe a citizen will beat us to the punch," he said.
One of the leaders of the IceHunters effort, Pamela Gay, said the project will give a boost to public participation as well as planetary science.
"Projects like this make the public part of modern space exploration," Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, said in a news release. "The New Horizons mission was launched knowing we'd have to discover the object it would visit after Pluto. Now is the time to make that discovery, and thanks to IceHunters, anyone can be that discoverer."
This is no simple task, however: The IceHunters are being asked to check composite images from ground-based telescopes, such as the 8-meter Subaru telescope in Hawaii or the 6.5-meter telescope in Chile, and mark the little blobs that could signal the existence of a Kuiper Belt object.
The technique is a 21st-century version of the method that astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto 81 years ago. He laboriously checked photographic plates to look for a speck that moved just the right amount of distance in the interval between one exposure and another. IceHunters.org enlists computing power to overlay different images of the same square of sky, and blot out the fixed stars. The little blobs that are left over could be variable stars, or asteroids, or those precious KBOs. It's up to Internet users to check millions of pictures and mark the right blobs for further study.
"Using just about any modern Web browser, users can circle potential KBOs and mark with a star the locations of asteroids," website developer Cory Lehan said in today's SIUE news release. "The website is filled with examples to help get people started. Anyone should be able to take part — no Flash required."
John Spencer, a colleague of Stern's at the Southwest Research Institute and on the New Horizons science team, said the IceHunters' results will be factored into the mission's KBO search effort. "When you're looking for something special in masses of messy, real-world data, sometimes there's no substitute for the human eye, and Zooniverse IceHunters will put thousands of eyes to work on this important job," he said in a New Horizons news release.
New Horizons' scientists will draw up a list of candidate KBOs based on location (Can the spacecraft get to them?) as well as scientific interest (How big are they? What do they seem to be made of? Do they have moons?). The top candidates will be listed online for public review, Stern said.
"I'll make the determination about which objects we fly by, but we're going to ask the public to come in and take a vote. It won't be a binding vote, but there are a great many very talented amateur scientists with a diversity of views, and they can help us," Stern told me.
The New Horizons team will announce one or two targets in the Kuiper Belt shortly before the Pluto flyby in July 2015. The spacecraft will be set on its new course one or two months after that encounter. The KBO observations would likely occur in the 2016-2020 time frame, depending on the distance from Pluto.
There may be an extra payoff for the IceHunters: They just might have a role in the naming of celestial objects that are discovered in the course of the project. Here's what the IceHunters.org FAQ file has to say about that: "In general, astronomers are very fond of catalog numbers, and the variable stars and Kuiper Belt objects you find will all be assigned numbers that are, sadly, quite boring. It may be possible, however, for you to name the asteroids you find — provided you're the first to find them. So start looking, and be the early bird to get the worm asteroid."
More about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt:
You can connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. Also, give a look to "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the Kuiper Belt as well as the search for alien worlds.