I decided to put on the shoes of an astronomer and observe the night sky on zooniverse.org. Complimentary to the current topic of class, I decided to try the Comet Hunters project. The project is meant to save the time of real astronomers by having everyday citizens search through pictures to find potential comets. The kicker is that the images are of the asteroid belt. The first “main-belt comets” were discovered, or more so recognized, in 2006 (a more in-depth backstory is provided on the zooniverse website). Astronomers want to find out more about this phenomenon and have enlisted the world to help.
Before I detail my feelings while working on the project, I will explain the basic process. Two zoomed in images were shown side-by-side of the same asteroid at two different times. First, I had to say yes or no to a question of whether the asteroid was at the center of the cross-hairs in both pictures. If the answer was no, I was on to the next set. If yes, then I had to answer whether one image showed evidence of a tail, or both, or neither. There was the option to invert the colors (the images were black and white) as an aid in deciding. The last step was to confirm my answers. A tutorial is available to explain the process before you begin.
The experience of working on this project was a bit of a roller coaster. While it may seem like a simple task, the images were incredibly grainy, which made it kind of hard to tell which glowing pixels were significant. In the backstory of the project, there’s mention of only 10 main-belt comets discovered. That seems like very few for 11 years of searching. I understand that they probably send each set of images by a few hundred people to ensure there aren’t false positives, but I still had this worry of wasting the time of someone much smarter than me. Even worse, what if I missed the evidence of a comet tail? After spending around half an hour flipping through the pictures I decided it was time to call it quits. While the potential for discovery was exciting, I found myself spending more time worrying about messing up than enjoying the investigation. Is this something that you would be interested in trying?