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New study shows citizens count lunar craters on par with professionals

March 17, 2014
New research into lunar crater-counting shows that the overall average of volunteers is very close to the average of the eight professionals who also examined this region of the lunar surface. The results indicate that crowdsourcing projects like those conducted through CosmoQuest can be used to effectively gather more data than previously thought possible. (Courtesy LASP/Robbins)

New research into lunar crater-counting shows that the overall average of volunteers is very close to the average of the eight professionals who also examined this region of the lunar surface. The results indicate that crowdsourcing projects like those conducted through CosmoQuest can be used to effectively gather more data than previously thought possible.
(Courtesy LASP/Robbins)

A new study led by LASP research scientist Stuart Robbins indicates that volunteer “citizen scientists” counted lunar craters at rates comparable to professional scientists. Using images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, volunteers for CosmoQuest, which contributes real science data to NASA missions, analyzed the high-resolution photos of the Moon for impact craters. Robbins and his co-authors then compared the volunteers’ results to those of eight professional planetary crater-counters.

Regarding the results, Robbins said, “The new research points out that crowdsourcing is a viable way to do planetary science. A very large group of volunteers was able to chart these features on the Moon just as well as professional researchers.

“We now have evidence that we can use the power of crowdsourcing to gather more reliable data from the Moon than we ever thought possible,” Robbins added.

A paper on the subject was published online March 4 in the journal Icarus.

Developed by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) assistant professor and study co-author Pamela Gay, CosmoQuest is a volunteer-based project that trains the public to identify craters, and includes educational features, forums, blogs, online hangouts, and galleries.

“Craters on the Moon are important to scientists because they are a record of the cosmic mayhem that went on during the early formation of our solar system,” said Robbins. “The early solar system bombardment recorded on the lunar surface allows scientists to look backward in time to see the conditions early Earth likely endured. Our citizen scientists are helping professional scientists explore the lunar surface, including spotting hazards and safe havens for future Moon missions.”

For this study, several images of small portions of the Moon were put online and both planetary science professionals and citizen scientists were asked to identify craters in the images that were at least 18 or more pixels, the equivalent of 35 feet, or 11 meters, in diameter. The area of the high-resolution images under study by the crater counters was about 1.4 square miles, or roughly the area of 1,000 football fields.

The variation among individuals counting craters can be substantial for both experts and volunteers, but when averaged by group, the population of craters found by the experts and citizen scientists were statistically similar.

“The results from the study were very reassuring to us,” said Robbins. “Without this first step of verifying the accuracy of volunteer crater counters, there would be no point in continuing the project. Our study results mean we can now use the power of crowdsourcing to gather more data than we ever thought possible before. We’ve only just begun to tap the usefulness of crowdsourcing through CosmoQuest’s Moon Mappers, Asteroid Mappers and Mercury Mappers portals.”

Robbins will present the results during a session on “Craters: Inventory, Imagery, and Morphology” at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 6:00 p.m. in the Town Center Exhibit Area.

Contacts:

Stuart Robbins, CU-Boulder/LASP, 303-918-5589
stuart.robbins@colorado.edu

Pamela Gay, SIUE, 618-307-6546
starstryder@gmail.com

Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114
jim.scott@colorado.edu