Solve a Space Mystery … From Your Hot Tub?

Ever since the first eager beaver loaded SETI@Home onto their computer, it seems that citizen astronomy projects have been all the digitized rage.

Of course, backyard astronomers have a long history of contributing to science, but the Internet age really seems to have opened up the possibilities. A few cases in point:

And now we have Citizen Sky, a project designed to help astronomers solve a 175-year-old mystery: Why does a star so bright you can see it from downtown Washington, D.C., effectively disappear about every 27 years?

At a session this morning at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, researchers unveiled a new model for what’s going on with the eclipsing variable star Epsilon Aurigae.

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—Image by Brian Thieme, courtesy www.citizensky.org

The bright star started fading in August 2009, and it went into totality on New Year’s Day. If past eclipses are any indication, the star will stay dimmed until early 2011.

Despite centuries of observations, exactly why this star has such a long-lasting eclipse has remained a mystery, and even the new model, based on a host of data, fails to explain things to everyone’s satisfaction.

So for all of 2010, excited amateurs are being invited to study Epsilon Aurigae in the hopes that some key pieces to the puzzle will be revealed during the yearlong eclipse.

According to the project Web site: “You don’t need any prior scientific training—we will give you all of the tools you need to become a citizen scientist*.

*Citizen scientists are volunteers, many of whom have no prior scientific training, who work with trained scientific researchers to answer real-world questions. This means YOU!”

As an aside, I’m not a huge fan of the term “citizen scientist”—it conjures in my mind an image of stuffy pedants who sit on county government boards and get seriously involved in the local Neighborhood Watch program.

I am just a static screen-grab. To take the poll, go here.

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But of course the concept is great. There’s so much data out there, and so many opportunities to collect more, that it makes sense to get all hands on deck to solve some cosmic riddles.

So what else can we call it? It’s gotta be something that sounds cool but all-inclusive, like a nice pair of jeans.

Street Geek? Stay-at-Home Researcher? Armchair Lab Rat?

At least the current poll suggests the Citizen Sky folks have embraced the concept of leisurely astronomy. Yes, Virginia, you can do science from your hot tub …

Human Journey