Woman at North Pole.

Lauren Farmer works in the polar regions and uses GLOBE Observer to observe clouds. Credit: Courtesy Lauren Farmer

10 Things: Citizen Science

By Celeste Hoang

Feature | April 11, 2018

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    Every day, all over the world, enthusiastic amateurs are making discoveries and valuable contributions—no fancy degrees or resumes needed. From a 15-year-old in Connecticut studying exoplanets to a furniture seller in the Philippines processing images of Jupiter at night, we’re shining the spotlight on how citizen science is helping us understand our universe.

    Sylvia Beer
    Left: Sylvia Beer, citizen scientist exploring Mars using Planet Four: Ridges. (Courtesy Sylvia Beer) Right: Image of polygonal ridges on Mars from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

    1The world of citizen science

    From Earth to Mars to beyond our Solar System, thousands of people worldwide participate in “citizen science” initiatives using NASA data that anyone, regardless of education or background, can use for real scientific research. We followed their journeys, beginning with Sylvia Beer, a 61-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease studying ridges on Mars.

    Christopher Go
    Christopher Go of Cebu City, Philippines, is an amateur astronomer and citizen scientist who helps process images from JunoCam, a visible-light camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently at Jupiter. At right is an example of Go’s work with images from JunoCam.

    2Day in the life

    In Cebu, Philippines, Christopher Go wakes up at 3 a.m. (yes, you read that right) to start imaging Jupiter with his telescope before heading off to his day job selling furniture.

    Judy Schmidt
    Citizen Scientist Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California, processes astronomical images from NASA spacecraft, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. An example of her work is Minkowski’s Butterfly, right, a planetary nebula in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus.

    3Purpose, found

    Judy Schmidt moved to New York City to be with her husband but found herself without a job in a strange new city, “bored and depressed,” as she puts it. So she decided to learn about astronomy. “I got into citizen science partly because I felt worthless and was looking for purpose.” Now, she processes spectacular images using NASA data.

    4And spacecraft found

    Just this past January, amateur astronomer Scott Tilley made an amazing discovery: he found a lost NASA spacecraft that’s been missing since 2005.

    Ocean McIntyre
    Left: Ocean McIntyre, citizen scientist who now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: Courtesy Ocean McIntyre

    5From citizen scientist to NASA

    About 10 years ago, Ocean McIntyre lost the majority of her vision to a rare neurological disorder. “My life as I knew it came to a screeching halt—I had to get acclimated to life without a fully functioning brain and eyes,” she recalls. “At the same time, my disability forced me to appreciate the beauty of the sky and space even more, and I became even more inspired to make a difference in space science.” She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in planetary science and astronomy three years ago. As of December 2017, she’s now the assistant to the science team on the Europa Clipper mission. Read her full story.

    6Age is just a number

    Alton Spencer is a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Connecticut who has loved astronomy since childhood and now spends his free time looking for exoplanets. “I don’t feel like there’s an age restriction when it comes to making great discoveries,” he says. “Citizen science is a way for people in middle or high school, like me, to actually make contributions to science despite not being in college or having science careers yet.” Read Alton’s full Q&A.

    Anna Atkins
    Anna Atkins

    7—Those who made history

    Citizen science has been around for centuries. We highlight a few notables, including Anna Atkins. Capturing the scientific process in photographs started with Atkins, a 19th century English botanist who laid the groundwork for scientific books illustrated with photography. She created cyanotypes, images made by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper.

    A new celestial phenomenon, discovered by citizen scientists, is called Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, or STEVE. ©Megan Hoffman (used with permission)

    8Mysterious Steve

    There were normal auroras—entrancing light shows in the sky caused by charged particles from the Sun interacting with Earth's magnetic field—and then there were the thin purple ribbons of light no one could explain. From 2015 to 2016, citizen scientists shared 30 reports of these mysterious lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus. A new study now points out that the phenomenon, nicknamed Steve, may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in our understanding of how Earth's magnetic fields interact with charged particles in space. More on citizen science discoveries.

    Lauren Farmer at the North Pole
    Lauren Farmer works at the North Pole. Credit: Courtesy Lauren Farmer

    9Head in the clouds

    Lauren Farmer’s day job is definitely a dream job: As a polar guide in the expedition cruise industry, she introduces adventure travelers to the wildlife and icy landscapes of Antarctica and the Arctic. In her free time, though, she loves to observe clouds with NASA's free citizen science app GLOBE Observer. Read Lauren’s full Q&A.

    10Your turn

    Ready to stop reading and get out there yourself? Here are all the ways you can join the citizen science movement, from exploring the surface of Mars to searching for exotic distant objects to taking stock of mosquito larvae in your hometown.