News / Calgary

Citizen scientists in Calgary help boost interest in astronomy, contribute to research

Social media and citizen scientists are helping local physicists take their research to new heights.

In a world where almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, getting an amazing photo of a harvest moon or a meteor shower has never been easier.

Now, scientists and stargazers are using the power of the Internet to boost both interest and their research.

Collecting images from 30 cameras stationed across Canada’s North, Emma Spanswick, an associate director at the University of Calgary’s Auroral Imaging Group (AIG), is part of two projects collecting “very valuable” data from the masses.

Alongside the Aurorasaurus project, which uses Twitter to track the location of aurora, the AIG is preparing to launch a new project, called the Auroral Zone, which is asking the public to help to analyze massive amounts of data.

Jennifer Howse, an education specialist at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, says social media is also helping debunk some extraterrestrial explanations.

“I’m a little bit disappointed when people say right away, ‘oh, they saw a UFO,’ when they see some sort of light or something that’s acting oddly in the sky,” she said.

“By taking an image of it, then you can pretty much find out what you’re observing really quickly and there’s probably 100 different objects that it could possibly be … So, I’ve been finding that I’m getting less UFO calls.”

“I think it fuels a lot more interest in science as opposed to the paranormal.”

Others in the University of Calgary’s physics and astronomy department, like David Knudsen, say social media has opened up a new level of dialogue, but notes scientists are just scratching the surface of its potential.

“It’s turned research into a two way street between the public and scientists,” he said. “Instead of just passing the message along and broadcasting announcements and research, the public is now actively helping.“

Spanswick said for her group’s purposes, knowing the type of aurora is important.

“Is it an arc — sort of a band that cuts across the sky? Or is it patches of aurora that are pulsating? Because those relate to different physics that’s going on in the near-Earth space environment,” she said.

Her group has “cameras all across the north” taking “lots of beautiful pictures of the aurora for scientific purposes,” she added, but there’s one problem.

“We have too much data for any one person to look at,” she said.

In order to analyze the data, the Auroral Zone will ask users to view an image taken by one of the AIG’s cameras and then answer a simple question: “what does this look like?”

Scientists can then hone in on a specific pattern or type of aurora in an area and try to determine what it indicates about the near earth space environment.

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