NASA is asking for the help of all space enthusiasts to identify asteroids through thousands of data.
This is the program “The Daily Minor Planet project”, in the context of which everyone is invited to look at a series of images and decide whether the spots of light look like asteroids, those pieces of rock that fall into space as remnants of the formation of the Sun our System, or if instead they are false detections due to flickering background stars, dust on the telescope mirror, or other causes.
Volunteers visit the website https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/fulsdavid/the-daily-minor-planet and, after looking at a series of images, answer “yes” or “no” as to whether they see asteroids in them . They can also write comments or exchange thoughts and information with other participants.
The images they are asked to evaluate come from the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey astronomy program, funded by NASA. As part of this program, more than 1,000 images are collected every night at the Steward Observatory in Arizona. These images are added daily to the website.
This huge amount of images being collected makes it difficult for researchers, who are asking for the public’s help to spot near-Earth (near-Earth) asteroids that “slip” the detection system. Asteroid detection software can spot potential asteroids, but scientists note that many of these detections are false positives. In fact, it is estimated that only 1% of the images presented to users depict real asteroids.
“We take so many images of the sky every night that it’s not feasible to examine them all to detect potential asteroids,” notes Carson Fuls, head of the Catalina Sky Survey program.
“I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night. This website opens doors. Want to look for asteroids too? If so, come in,” he adds.
Larger asteroids reflect more light and have been discovered by scientists, but smaller ones are more numerous and less easy to spot. Most of the asteroids in our Solar System are found in the Main Belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. More often than not, these asteroids orbit the Sun harmlessly, never crossing the orbits of the major planets.
But others, the near-Earth asteroids, have orbits that can bring them close to Earth or that intersect Earth’s orbit.
There are so many reasons to find these objects, says NASA. Some asteroids pose a risk of impact with Earth, while others are essential to humanity’s quest to explore space.
The interest in this particular project is so great that in the first four days since the website was launched, more than 1,200 volunteers participated in the search, who have already completed 56% of the project.
This is not the first time that NASA has asked for the public’s help in locating objects in space. It was preceded by the “Catalina Outer Solar System Survey project”, in which participants were asked to search in photographs for celestial bodies located beyond the orbit of the planet Neptune. Also underway is the Active Asteroids program to search for active asteroids, a class of objects that are rarely found.
Such programs belong to the so-called “Citizen Science”, which refers to the participation of citizens in activities and procedures, which take place during a scientific investigation. Through related NASA programs, more than 410 citizens have been included as co-authors in NASA scientific publications. NASA currently has 36 such projects active, aimed at interested citizens around the world, from recording penguin populations and observing lakes to analyzing air quality and recording bird sounds.