“We’re From NASA”: How Citizen Science Helped Find Ultima Thule

The science world is a-twitter with excitement lately, following the recent arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, dubbed “Ultima Thule” by popular vote. The name means “beyond the borders of the known world”, signifying Ultima Thule’s status as the most distant object ever visited by Earthly spacecraft. Ultima Thule is a dark reddish rock in the Kuiper belt, a contact binary formed by two smaller rocks coming together in what was presumably a gentle fashion.

Do you wanna build a snowman? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Reaching this space snowman 6.5 billion kilometers away from Earth took brains, dedication, ingenuity and the help of an unnamed Argentinian man and his daughter.

To successfully intercept Ultima Thule, the New Horizons mission team needed to answer some questions, such as “What trajectory is Ultima Thule on?” and “Is there any space debris around Ultima Thule that will destroy our spacecraft?” Being so small (~30km diameter at its widest point), observing Ultima Thule directly from this far away would be too difficult, so the team relied on data gathered during stellar occultations, i.e., when Ultima Thule passed in front of a star.

One of these occultations occurred on July 17, 2017, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The team had already struck out twice in trying to observe Ultima Thule passing over a star: once in South Africa, and again using the airborne telescope SOFIA over the Pacific Ocean, so tension was already running high.

On this particular night, it happened to be very windy where the observation team was, which is bad news when you’re trying to hold steady focus on a tiny object that’s really far away. The team found themselves needing help to shield the telescopes they had brought with them from wind vibrations, and get the data from the star “without it jiggling around all over the place”, as planetary scientist Anne Verbiscer puts it.

Where does one find volunteers for an astronomical observation? Well, apparently even in Argentina NASA is known and loved, and help can be found just by walking into the community. “If you just started out with ‘We’re from NASA,’ people started coming out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Verbiscer. And that is how one Argentinian man and his daughter ended up spending their evening blocking the wind from a telescope using a truck, a tarp and some plywood, allowing the NASA folks to collect the data they needed to send New Horizons to Ultima Thule.

Want to learn more about the search for Ultima Thule? Check out the episode of NOVA that inspired this blog!

Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird”, and beginning today, Friday, February 16, 2018, bird lovers around the world will grab their binoculars, fill their bird feeders, update their eBird app, and look toward the skies. The 21st Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects, begins today, and you can be part of this grand event of data collection.

All it takes is a mobile device (or computer) to log your results, an account at gbbc.birdcount.org , and 15 minutes of your time during the four-day event.

Can’t tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-winged black bird? That’s okay. The GBBC web site provides a handy online bird guide.  The web site also provides a guide for tricky bird IDs, including: Which Red Finch is it, Identifying Some Common Sparrows, and Identifying Doves.

I recently spent some time talking to Brian Schneider, one of the educators at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, WI, to get some tips for first-time birders. Continue reading “Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018”

Fold It Up and Discover a Whole New World

FIGURE 1: Foldscope design, components and usage. (A) CAD layout of Foldscope paper components on an A4 sheet. (B) Schematic of an assembled Foldscope illustrating panning, and (C) cross-sectional view illustrating flexure-based focusing. (D) Foldscope components and tools used in the assembly, including Foldscope paper components, ball lens, button-cell battery, surface-mounted LED, switch, copper tape and polymeric filters. (E) Different modalities assembled from colored paper stock. (F) Novice users demonstrating the technique for using the Foldscope. (G) Demonstration of the field-rugged design, such as stomping under foot.
FIGURE 1: Foldscope design, components and usage.
(A) CAD layout of Foldscope paper components on an A4 sheet. (B) Schematic of an assembled Foldscope illustrating panning, and (C) cross-sectional view illustrating flexure-based focusing. (D) Foldscope components and tools used in the assembly, including Foldscope paper components, ball lens, button-cell battery, surface-mounted LED, switch, copper tape and polymeric filters. (E) Different modalities assembled from colored paper stock. (F) Novice users demonstrating the technique for using the Foldscope. (G) Demonstration of the field-rugged design, such as stomping under foot.

Scientific inquiry —looking at the world and asking questions about what we observe—is a natural human behavior. Why is the sky blue? What would happen if I did this Mom? Ask any grade school teacher. Kids do science naturally. They are not afraid of questions. They are not afraid of nature. They are not afraid of experiments and data collection.

One other things kids do really well is: fold paper. I never cease to be amazed at the elaborate fortune tellers, hoppers, boats, hats and other creations that my daughter and her friends make at a moment’s notice out of virtually any scrap of paper they can find.

Recently members of the Prakash Lab at Standford University announced the Foldscope: an optical microscope that is printed and folded from a single flat sheet of paper. These microscopes, which can provide magnification of up to 2000X, can be produced for less than $1.00/each. Furthermore these scopes weigh less than 10g (a couple of coins), require no external power source, can be dropped from 3-stories without damage, and can even be stepped on.

These characteristics make the Foldscope ideal for field work, particularly in remote locations where access to power and other resources is difficult. Prakash and colleagues have published their work in a PLOS One paper and have demonstrated many uses for these Foldscopes including high-resolution brightfield microscopy, fluorescence microscopy, and darkfield microscopy. Continue reading “Fold It Up and Discover a Whole New World”

The Games We Play

Now you can play an RNA folding game (image source RCSB PDB)
Now you can play an RNA folding game (image source RCSB PDB)

Most everyone loves a good puzzle game, and these days there’s an abundance of brain teasers available to us in multiple formats.  Crosswords and Sudoku can still be found in your newspaper, but PC, online, and smartphone puzzles have exploded in recent years.  Recently, I’ve spent many hours trying to level up in Candy Crush Saga (I’m stuck on level 102).  But for me, the best puzzle games are ones that teach science in fun clever ways without making you feel like you’re learning a lesson.

Two of my favorites show you how to design rockets and fly them to planetary bodies: Simple Rockets and Kerbal Space Program (with fun names like “smoon” or “Mun” as known in each respective game).  These games are designed to run on your smartphone, tablet, or PC.  One of my favorites I remember playing in middle school in the late ‘90s, “The Incredible Machine” challenged you to create the most elaborate Rube Goldberg device imaginable.  The new “Contraption Maker” made by the same team will satisfy your urges for elaborate designs for simple problems.

Best of all, puzzle games can do more than just teach what’s already known about science, they can help researchers refine and improve their own research, and generate new science.  Scientists have put our basic desire for new puzzles to use previously in projects like FoldIt where citizen scientists are challenged with folding proteins.

A newer science puzzle game I’m itching to start playing is designed to help scientists understand how RNA folds.  Continue reading “The Games We Play”

About the Wild Life in Our Homes (at least the single-celled kind)

The initial paper from the Wild Life in Our Homes study by Dunn et al. found a correlation between the presence of dogs and specific bacterial communities on pillowcases and TV screens.
The initial paper from the Wild Life in Our Homes study by Dunn et al. found a correlation between the presence of dogs and specific bacterial communities on pillowcases and TV screens.

Back in the fall, I received a sampling kit, an Informed Consent form and instructions for collecting samples for the Wild Life In Our Homes citizen science project. I carefully swabbed the requested surfaces: exterior and interior door trim, kitchen counter tops, pillowcases, etc., and sent my samples in. I later received confirmation that my samples had been received and again later confirmation that they were being analyzed.

The first paper from this project has been published by Dunn et al. in PLOS ONE (Home Life: Factors Structuring the Bacterial Diversity Found within and between Homes). This initial report covers the first 40 homes sampled, all from the Raleigh-Durham, NC, USA area. Volunteers sampled their homes in the Fall of 2011, collecting specimens from nine areas: cutting boards, kitchen counters, refrigerator, toilet seat, pillowcase, door handle, TV screen, and interior and exterior door trim. The scientists used direct PCR and high-throughput sequencing to sequence the bacterial 16S rRNA gene from the submitted samples. By doing this they were able to estimate the diversity within each sample—they did not distinguish between live and dead organisms, and they did not sequence anything other than the bacterial 16SrRNA, so this study is limited to bacteria. Continue reading “About the Wild Life in Our Homes (at least the single-celled kind)”

Springtime and the Emergence of Citizen Science

Here in Wisconsin, we await with great anticipation, the March equinox and the days and months following, when the tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun brings more sunshine, longer days and warmer temperatures. We have been browsing seed catalogs, covertly starting seedlings in our basements for summer gardens, and even forcing a bulb or two in hopes that we can force spring. We look and listen for every phenological sign we can. When I heard and spotted my first red-winged blackbird of the year on my daily commute this week, my heart leapt with joy.

It seems as if everyone is a scientist, observing the world and commenting on this sign or that phenomenon: a minute longer between sunrise and sunset, the swelling of buds on tree limbs, or the appearance of a sandhill crane. And in the end, all of these “scientists” hypothesize that spring, must indeed, be around the corner.

Truthfully though, these very phenomena do allow everyone to be a scientist. Spring and the changes it brings: the appearance of amphibians, the migrations of birds, etc. provide the perfect opportunity for citizen science. Continue reading “Springtime and the Emergence of Citizen Science”

Play video games…and cure cancer?

A folded (but not by me) Foldit protein

“Whoa, what is that?” says my coworker, Dan, looking at the brightly colored, squiggly structure on my computer screen I’m flipping and tugging at with clicks of my mouse.

“It’s a protein. I’m playing Foldit,” I reply, clicking and dragging on a blue sidechain to eliminate the red spiky “clash” ball between it and another sidechain and watching my score jump. I explain how it’s a video game where the time you spend playing can actually help advance scientific discovery.

“That’s so cool. Can you send me the link?” he says. And, within five minutes, another Foldit download completes and another layperson researcher has logged in, ready to contribute to cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s or HIV just by playing a video game. Continue reading “Play video games…and cure cancer?”