Thinking Tech

NASA wants citizen scientists

Posting in Government

The space agency will call on all of us to help analyze data collected by NASA robots.

For several years, NASA has been studying how robots can help improve manned space missions by scouting potentially hostile terrain or performing tedious tasks that would bore or endanger humans.

This summer, though, we humans will get to help out. NASA robots that periodically roam barren areas of the Earth in preparation for space travel will be equipped with digital cameras and software developed by NASA and Carnegie Mellon that can produce enormously dense panoramic photos by stitching together hundreds or thousands of individual images, according to Terry Fong, who leads the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames.

NASA will be posting its pictures and asking us to comment on what we see at gigapan.org -- there are some pictures there now. NASA scientists are also looking for ways to use Google Earth and Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope -- tools they already use -- to help us visualize the paths these robots will take and some of the tasks they'll do along the way.

One thing that hammered home the importance of robots at NASA was the Apollo 17 mission, Fong said. Astronaut Jack Schmitt, on his way back to the spacecraft, discovered orange glass scattered around Shorty Crater on the surface of the moon. The glass was volcanic and was a complete surprise -- the most significant find of the mission -- but Schmitt didn't have much time to collect it because he was nearly out of oxygen.

What a loss. Had a robot done reconnaissance and spotted the glass ahead of time, Schmitt's excursion would have been planned differently.

Here's a video of one of the latest robots, K10, doing reconnaissance around NASA. It isn't pretty, but it does see better, or at least differently, than humans do.

UPDATE: Here are six more ways for citizen scientists to help NASA, from Wired News.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure