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martes, 29 de junio de 2010

NASA Needs You: 6 Ways to Help an Astronomer

Space is a big place, and even with their giant telescopes, astronomers just can’t cover it all. This is where you come in. Yes, you.

Astronomy is one of the few scientific fields where amateur scientists can, and frequently do, make significant contributions. But now space scientists are increasingly also looking to people with little or no training for help with their research. Sometimes they are looking for free labor for tasks that humans can still do better than computers, like identifying different types of galaxies. Other times it’s numbers of eyes on the sky or feet on the ground they’re after. But more and more, they are finding ways to get regular citizens involved.

Amateur astronomers and regular folks have already had an impact on the science by making observations of fleeting cosmic phenomena that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

When an asteroid or a comet hit Jupiter in July 2009 and then again earlier this month, amateur astronomers in Australia and the Philippines were the first to notice. Amateurs have invented new telescopes, kept tabs on variable stars and discovered comets. And you don’t even need any fancy equipment.

“We can learn a lot from someone taking a cellphone video of a meteor as it burns up in the atmosphere,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

But what if you’re not the lucky one who is in the right place at the right time? You are still needed. Citizen scientists have also become crucial for helping astronomers with one of their most intractable problems: too much data, too little time.

Here are some astronomy projects you can take part in right now, while you wait for your iPhone to capture a meteor.
Hunt for Meteorites

Last month, NASA tried to recruit meteorite hunters when cameras at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center recorded the path of a meteor from its home in the asteroid belt to just 23 miles above the Earth’s surface. The 60-pound rock is thought to have smashed into the ground near Scottsboro, Alabama, on May 18.

“This is the first time our cameras picked up something we thought produced meteorites on the ground,” Cooke said. “If we find the one in Scottsboro, we know exactly where it came from.”

Knowing both the path the meteorite took and what it’s made of would give scientists a complete picture of the rock’s life, and they were anxious to find it. But after two days of searching, NASA’s meteorite basket came up empty.

So Cooke called on the masses. NASA issued a press release on May 20 asking anyone who found a funny rock near Scottsboro to call them.

“People in the public contribute a lot to meteor science,” Cooke said. “My hope was that it landed on somebody’s farm, and they thought, ‘Where the heck did that rock come from?’”

So far nobody has found the rock Cooke is after.Image: NASA

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