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Spacehack: Open Source Astronomy for All

by Kirstin Butler

After all the hullabaloo over Balloon Boy, it’s reassuring to learn that some Americans look up for reasons other than media pranks. In fact, whole communities of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists look to the skies for discovery, education, and inspiration. Aiding them in those pursuits is Spacehack, an online directory of and for people who want to participate in space exploration.

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Since January, Spacehack has provided a portal for educating and engaging those with an interest in the extraterrestrial. And in the context of both next-generation space races and abysmal science performance in our schools, it seems like Spacehack's mission to support space literacy for the future is more important than ever.

At Spacehack's helm is Ariel Waldman, a former program coordinator for NASA’s community-outreach arm CoLab. While working at CoLab, Waldman discovered that there were lots of citizen scientist collectives, which were “alive, passionate and well, but fragmented and having varying communication protocols.” As a result, there was no one platform where space fans could communicate with each other and learn about all of the opportunities open to them. Waldman took the first step toward creating the conditions for ongoing, coherent collaboration by creating Spacehack and aggregating competitions, events, and open source projects of note.

Spacehack takes its mission from the language of NASA’s 2008 reauthorization -- the Congressional appropriation that provides NASA's funding -- which specifically says the agency should "facilitate participation by the public" in national space programs.

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Some of the initiatives featured on the site, so far, include Google’s high-profile Lunar X PRIZE, a call to create original media content publicizing CERN’s now-infamous Large Hadron Collider, and a request by the space-research collective Galaxy Zoo for crowdsourced classifications of telescopic images. Participation in each of the projects requires varying levels of expertise, but the common denominator on Spacehack is enthusiasm. Waldman said she considers a listing to be a success when she sees it again as a resource on a middle school website, or hears that a software engineer in Kuwait built a satellite after seeing the project on the site.

Earlier this month, The New York Times and other news outlets reported NASA’s recent confirmation of water on the moon; the discovery set off excitement around potential water harvesting and support of future lunar colonies. At the moment such speculation is more possibility than probability, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the access and rights to resources become a topic of serious diplomatic debate.

That next space race, though, comes at a moment when Americans know perilously little about science or space. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 18 percent of 12th graders in the United States demonstrate science knowledge considered "at or above proficient" achievement levels. So NASA spends time debunking the new disaster movie 2012, instead of focusing on outreach for the future.

Luckily, volunteer space enthusiasts continue to create new places like Spacehack to share discoveries and research with each other. Waldman says that she "hope(s) to see it grow into a site that can help spark more collaboration and help find potential social connections for like-minded spacehackers." Read more about her thoughts on the practice and promise of citizen space exploration or get in on the hacking action yourself with Spacehack's twitter feed.


Kirstin Butler is a generalist editor, researcher, and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She holds a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University.

Image Credits: Spacehack/NASA

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Comments

This seems an appropriate place to plug a series of video tutorials on how to manipulate raw space probe images that Emily Lakdawalla is putting together for the Planetary Society.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 23 Nov 09

For me, amateur astronomy is one of the most interesting stories to consider when we look at solving major problems. Amateurs have had a significant impact in the field of astronomy. I love the way the general public is regarded as a cooperating partner in the field. Wikipedia says...

"amateur astronomers make a contribution to astronomy by monitoring variable stars, tracking asteroids and discovering transient objects, such as comets. Such efforts are one of the relatively few ways interested amateurs can still make useful contributions to scientific knowledge."

To me, this is incredibly encouraging and engaging for the science of astronomy. My question is, how can other sciences engage the general population in a way that promotes engagement, cooperation and information sharing?


Posted by: David on 27 Nov 09

@david: I guess this is the whole idea behind "citizen science".
Some examples are the Participatory Urbanism project by Intel Research (http://www.urban-atmospheres.net/projects.htm), or Urban Sensing by UCLA (http://urban.cens.ucla.edu/).
The basic idea is to give people air quality sensors to integrate in their cellphones, so the results can be read in real-time on the phone display. The data is also uploaded on a centralized database, allowing to map urban pollution on the finest possible scale.
Citizen Science Projects (http://citizensci.com/) is full of other examples.


Posted by: Pietro on 10 Feb 10

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