Crater counting becomes crowdsourced...and it works


Crater counting can be a tedious process, as images need to be scanned and re-scanned in order to verify the existence of these features on the surfaces of other worlds. 

A new study by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder tested the ability of volunteers to find craters on the Moon. These results were compared to professional analysis, from scientists with as much as 50 years of experience. The study reveals amateurs are just as good as professional scientists at finding craters in photographs. 

This finding could open up a rich resource of amateur scientists for extraterrestrial cartographers. By using crowdsourcing, astronomers may be able to use thousands of volunteers to analyze data. 

"What we can say is that a very large group of volunteers was able to chart these features on the moon just as well as professional researchers. More importantly, we now have evidence that we can use the power of crowdsourcing to gather more reliable data from the moon than we ever thought was possible before," Stuart Robbins, leader of the study, said.

CosmoQuest, a group that organizes amateurs to examine NASA photographs, undertook the study. The organization is examining the surfaces of Mars and the asteroid Vesta for signs of cratering, in addition to the lunar surface. 

The high-resolution photographs were obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. That spacecraft was launched in 2009, to map the surface of our companion world. There could be as many as 500 million craters on the surface of the Moon measuring 35 feet across or larger. That was the size of the smallest craters volunteers - both amateur and professional - were asked to identify. During the study, some experts found twice as many as others from their field. 

"Our citizen scientists are helping professional scientists explore the lunar surface, including spotting hazards and safe havens for future moon missions," Robbins said. 

Erosion does not take place to any significant degree on the Moon, compared to the Earth. Rain, wind, and plate tectonics wear away the evidence of past impacts on our home world.  

Their Web site features a human-versus-machine test, giving viewers a chance to match their crater-counting skills against that of a computer. 

Astronomy is one of the few branches of science where amateurs can still make significant contributions to the established body of knowledge. This new finding could pave the way for additional contributions from amateur astronomers. 

Details of the study were profiled in the journal Icarus.

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