Archive for the ‘Astronomy & Space’ Category

3, 2, 1…Project MERCCURI Blasts Off to the ISS Today!!

By April 14th, 2014 at 11:40 am | Comment


What happens when you combine professional cheerleaders, microbiologists, and astronauts? The answer is Project MERCCURI and the Microbial Playoffs… in SPAAACE!

SPACE FLORIDA, FL — Today, something  amazing is headed toward the ISS—microbial life from earth!This moment is the culmination of a citizen science experiment called Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the ISS), a collaboration between NASA, UC Davis, SciStarter, and Science Cheerleaders.

Watch the launch LIVE today at 4:58pm ET / 1:58 PT on NASA TV!!

There were two main goals for the project. The first involves a huge competition that will take place on the ISS between 47 different microbes that have been collected by thousands of public participants from the surfaces of various public spaces (mostly sporting venues). The microbial competitors will face off against each other to see who will grow the fastest, and the race will be monitored by astronauts on the ISS, using standard laboratory equipment. Researchers at UC Davis will host an identical race using the same kind of equipment on Earth.

The second  goal involves sending 4,000 cell samples to Argonne National Lab to be sequenced by Jack Gilbert. The lab will identify which microbes are present on the surfaces of cell phones and shoes and compare them to other cell phone and shoe samples from around the country. While astronauts do not carry cell phones or wear shoes, they will be swabbing similar surfaces onboard the ISS, like foot holds that they strap their feet into while they are operating the external robotic arms and their wall-mounted communication devices.

You can get to know all of the microbial competitors, who they are, where they’re from, and why they are so cool on the official website. If you want, you can even print your own Microbial Trading Cards. Cell phone and shoe collections will continue through April!

The microbes are sailing into space today aboard Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, is on site today at the launch. She notes, “We’re here, in part, as representatives of the thousands of citizen scientists who participated in this important research project to study microbes on Earth and in space!”


Thank you to all who made this project possible. It’s pure proof that the sky is the limit for what we can do in science, together.

For more, follow #SpaceMicrobes on Twitter.

Image: Darlene Cavalier

Getting flashed by the Moon?

By March 3rd, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Comment

Monitor the rates and sizes of meteoroids striking the moon with the Lunar Impact Monitoring project.

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.


By now you’ve probably seen Gravity, and maybe you figured real astronauts don’t have to worry about projectiles, flying debris, or explosions. After all, the stars seem so calm from Earth, and the only turbulence we see on the surface of the moon are the waves breaking its reflection over the river. But sometimes, if you look long enough (even with the naked eye), you can spot a meteorite hurtling into Earth’s atmosphere with a flash. Approximately 73,000 lbs, about two large truckloads, of rock streaks through the Earth’s atmosphere each day. Earth’s atmosphere causes the meteorites to burn out before they do any damage, but the Moon has no protection against meteorites and neither do spacecraft or astronauts who might be working on or near the Moon. Potential for catastrophe? Worthy of little globes of Sandra Bullock tears? I’d say so.

To understand what risk these meteorites pose to spacecraft and their crews working in the lunar environment, astronauts have to know how often meteorites impact the moon, what size, and with how much force. Astronomers have been able to see the meteorites hitting the Moon for years – it doesn’t take much. When a meteorite strikes the Moon, it explodes in a flash that can be caught with only an 8 to 14 inch telescope and a clear sky. Since 2006, NASA astronomers like Rob Suggs say they “point telescopes at the night portion of the moon and record video from sensitive cameras,” which they analyze later. Simple as that, the Lunar Impact Monitoring Project at NASA was born.

Image courtesy of George Varros. A lunar impact flash on the Moon from March 13, 2008.

Suggs says NASA began seeking out the help of citizen scientists immediately: “Many amateur astronomers have equipment similar to what we use.” By having more eyes on the moon, NASA can greatly increase the likelihood of seeing a lunar impact flash. The scientists want to be able to see as much as possible but sometimes, Suggs says, “we are clouded out or the Moon has set at our observatories while the Moon may still be visible from an amateur astronomer’s backyard.”

And sometimes amateur astronomers are the ones who end up seeing the impact. George Varros, a citizen scientist volunteer who has been involved with the Lunar Impact Monitoring Project since 2006, has already caught several impacts on camera. Varros first got involved with the project in part because of a lifelong love of astronomy, but he also says he recognized NASA was asking the amateur astronomy community to do “solid science, and it was not very difficult to do.” Even so, Varros says that the work “does take an effort and several hours, several nights, of imaging might elapse before you record [an impact],” but the wait is well worth it. Capturing an image, he says, is the best part. Already, the project has been able to catch the birth of a new crater and 300 flashes.

Once an image is caught on tape, NASA scientists can try to correlate the impact with a meteor shower they know about and use that information to learn the speed and size of the meteorite.  Often, these meteorite can fly through space eighty times faster than the fastest jet on Earth. So far, meteorites haven’t been known to destroy any spacecraft, but some people say that some in-space anomalies – bumps and bruises – have been from meteorites.

Whatever violence the rocks are causing up in space, lunar monitoring is still a peaceful experience from Earth. Suggs says it’s been thrilling to see impacts from the project and “seeing the new crater that Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detected from our March 17, 2013, impact was extremely exciting and satisfying.” But his favorite part of the project is still sitting out and watching the sky. Suggs says, “I enjoy the observing: just me and the telescopes and the Moon in the middle of the night.”

Images: Wikimedia (top), courtesy of George Varros (GIF)

Angus R. Chen is a research assistant at Princeton University, where he does geochronology research using uranium and lead isotopes from zircon crystals. Previously, he was a research intern at the Harvard Forest, studying the impacts of climate change on soil. He recently graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in environmental science and creative writing. When he’s not in the lab admiring rocks and then pulverizing them, he writes poetry, fiction, science articles, and makes cool videos.

Citizen Science… After Hours

By February 28th, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Comment

From moon monitoring to stargazing to salamander sleuthing, SciStarter brings you citizen science projects you can do in the dark.

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GLOBE at Night
Within a couple of generations in the U.S., only the national parks will have dark enough skies to see the Milky Way. Light pollution disrupts the habits of animals and wastes energy and money.Join this international star-hunting program to “see the light!” Get started!


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Loss of the Night
How many stars can you see where you live? The Loss of the Night App (available for Android devices) challenges citizen scientists to identify as many stars as they can in order to measure light pollution. Get started!


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Dark Sky Meter
The Dark Sky Meter (available for iPhones) allows citizen scientists to contribute to a global map of nighttime light pollution. The map is also a great help for (amateur) astronomers looking for dark skies. Get started!


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Lunar Impact Monitoring
NASA needs your help to monitor the rates and sizes of large meteoroids striking the moon’s dark side. This data will help engineers design lunar spacecraft, habitats, vehicles, and extra-vehicular activity suits to protect human explorers from the stresses of the lunar environment. Get started!


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Salamander Crossing Brigades
Serve as a Salamander Crossing Guard at amphibian road crossings throughout the Monadnock Region. Volunteers count migrating amphibians and safely usher the animals across roads during one or more “Big Nights.” Get started!


Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found

If you’d like your project featured in our newsletter, e-mail

Loss of the Night: Stargazing and Citizen Science

By February 28th, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Comment

Contribute to light pollution research with the Loss of the Night Android app!

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

Effects of Skyglow due to artificial light on star visibility

Effects of skyglow on star visibility (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

I’m going to take a quick bet and guess that every one who is reading this post has at least once gazed up at a clear sky and been fascinated by all the stars out there. If you’re out walking in the night with your friends or family, stargazing is probably the cheapest way to entertain yourself for hours on end.

Now, what if you could have all that fun, learn about constellations and contribute to science at the same time? There’s an app for that.

The science that we are talking about here is research on light pollution. Light pollution is the excessive artificial light that is added by sources such as poorly designed street lighting and over-illumination (imagine Times Square, Las Vegas or empty offices with the lights on all night).

Though we associate the increased availability of artificial lighting as a measure of human progress, it has unintended consequences. Birds misdirected by illuminated structures often suffer fatal collisions and freshly hatched turtles die because they wrongly migrate towards illuminated lands instead of the sea. Light pollution also significantly affects the diurnal or nocturnal nature of animals. As humans, our internal body clocks are also very tightly linked to the rhythmic changes in light between day and night. Artificial lighting can disrupt this rhythm leading to consequences to our health such as disorders associated with poor sleep patterns. So more light is not always good. Now that I’ve made you sufficiently concerned about this issue, I’m going to tell you how you can help!

Identifying stars in the night sky is one way by which we can measure light pollution. In a setting with lots of artificial lighting, the number of stars that are visible will be less. By gathering large amounts of information on star visibility from different locations around the world, citizen scientists can contribute extremely valuable data to the research effort on light pollution. Since not all of us are adept at identifying stars and constellations, several initiatives have come forward to help citizen scientists participate. One if them is the Loss of the Night (official site) (Verlust der Nacht in German) research network funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The app was built in partnership with Cosalux. It investigates the causes and consequences of light pollution with the goal of developing improved and sustainable lighting concepts.

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

The data collected is sent to a larger international citizen science project called ‘GLOBE at Night’ which has been collecting and mapping this data since 2006. Over the past 8 years, more than 100,000 data points have been collected by Globe at Night from citizen scientists in 115 countries. Around 10,000 (and counting) of these data points have been contributed by the Loss of the night app. For 2014, the Globe at Night project plans to collect data about specific constellations at defined windows every month of the year. To start adding your own observations to this effort, I’ve come up with a simple guide below.

[Note - This month's Globe at Night campaign is ending on 2/28! Send in your measurements whenever you can! Don't worry, you can still participate outside of the campaign dates.]

A how-to guide for Loss of the Night

  1. Be safe, and be aware of your surroundings. Find level ground with room to move around. Always have a companion with you to watch out for potential hazards when you are walking around with your eyes to the sky. Wear appropriate clothing to protect yourself from the elements.
  2. Download Loss of the night on your Android phone. When using the app for the first time, you may optionally choose to enter information about yourself such as your age, whether you wear glasses and your email address. You can also create a username if you wish to track your observations on the GLOBE at night map. (Don’t have an Android phone? Check out the Dark Sky Meter iOS project or Globe at Night project for other ways to contribute!)
  3. Go out on a night when the sky is clear. If you’re in North America use the Clear Sky Chart to find out sky conditions close to where you are. Alternatively if you’re just out at night with friends, family or a significant other and see a clear night sky get cracking!
  4. Whip out your smartphone, fire up the app and point the camera at the night sky. You will see a red circle with an arrow. Note: If it’s not dark enough outside, the app will prompt you to measure at a different time.
  5. Move your phone in the general direction of the arrow. The app uses the electronic compass in your phone to identify your direction. When you are in the right position to identify a star, the screen will freeze and the circle will enlarge.
  6. If you can see the star identified on your screen in the sky select ‘Star is visible’. If you cannot or youre not sure, select ‘Not visible or unsure’.  Congratulations! You’ve made a measurement!
  7. In order to get a reliable reading of how dark the night sky is, you will need to take at least 7 measurements. If you’re feeling particularly curious, you can always keep going and take more than 7. The success of the project depends upon getting as many readings as possible so keep measuring!
  8. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.

Check out the detailed guide for more information and help using the app.

Images: Courtesy of Loss of the Night

Arvind Suresh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn or at his Website.


Citizen Science in the Classrom: Mapping Mars and Be a Martian with NASA

By February 4th, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Comment

Students Explore the Surface of Mars and Contribute to Citizen Science From Their Classroom

Mars Rover main page


1st -12th


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is asking for help in processing data collected on Mars, in the form of pictures taken by the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Curiosity. On the “Be a Martian” home page there is a dashboard where teachers or students may create an account with a Martian profile, complete with choosing your alien. Each action, associated with a profile, is given points or virtual badges for participating. Creating a profile is not necessary, you may also participate as a “Martian tourist.”  After registering (or not) you will be taken to their Citizenship Hall, which has links for pages with polling, a “theater” with video clips about the rovers, the ability to create a post card to send to the rover Spirit, and an Atlas with geographic information about Mars. Accessed from the Citizenship Hall is the, the second major page of their website, the “Map Room.”  In the map room there is an introductory video about the program and students have the opportunity to try their hands at three types of lunar mapping. These include aligning photos to match topographic images, counting craters, and tagging physical features of the landscape.

Materials You’ll Need:

  • Computer or computers with internet access.
  • Projector or smart board may be useful for working as a class.
  • Color printer

Why This Citizen Science Project is a Strong Candidate for the Classroom:

  • This project can be done in any setting, rural or urban.
  • No special tools are required outside of a computer with internet access.
  • Students gain a “sense of place” through learning about space and other planets.
  • NASA provides a great deal of supporting curriculum, hand-outs, posters, and multi-media resources.

Teaching Materials:

Teaching materials that are supplied on Citizenship website, for the “Be a Martian” project, include a Mars atlas with descriptions of different parts of the planet’s surface and the “Two Moons” theater. There are eight different videos in the theater, ranging from testing the Curiosity’s parachute to students designing human settlements on Mars.

There is also an Educators Page, accessed from the Mars Exploration home page.  However it has an extensive curriculum for K-12 as well as supporting resources. Here are just some of the lessons included:

  • Reflect on Your Community- Design a plan for an Earth community and discuss how it would be made on Mars.
  • Solar System Scale and Size- Create a model of the solar system that compares size and distance.
  • Soda Straw Rockets-creating rockets from soda straws.
  • Marsbound-Using a card game to design a mission and get everyone home safely.
  • Lava Layering-Modeling lava flow and layering using play dough.
  • Rover Races-Drawing and designing a rover to meet challenges on the surface of Mars.
  • Mars Image Analysis-using images to analyze Mar’s surface environment.

NASA also provides resources for the classroom including the “Mars Activity Book.” This is a 131 page document which is full of even more activities and lesson plans K-12. You can also find coloring pages and posters. For 5th-12th grade there is even the option of joining the Mars Student Imaging Project and which would allow your class to actually take pictures from the Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Mars tagging screen shot

In the Mars Mapping room students can tag topographic features of the surface of Mars.

Online Safety for Children

The Mars Mapping project allows students and teachers to create their own accounts or to use an “Anonymous Tourist Visa.”  The account website sorts students into 0-13 years or 14+ years. For the 0-13 yr. old students, they must provide a parent or guardian’s e-mail. In the sign up process they are also required to take an “oath” that they won’t give out information about themselves, treat others nicely, and not use bad words or say means things. For older participants they can use their own e-mail but they also agree to respect everyone and follow their code of conduct. The use of accounts appears designed to encourage student challenges for obtaining points and badges which may encourage participation. Learn more about children’s online privacy and citizen science.


Common Core and Next Gen. Standards Met:

First Grade

Next. Gen. Science: 1-ESS1-1 Use observations of the sun, moon, and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted. The curriculum activities provided by NASA about Solar System Scale  & Size may give students a frame of reference for comparison of the brightness of the sun compared to other planets and stars, and why the sun and moon appear to rise and set. Students may make predictions regarding the movement of Mars and Earth relative to other stars and planets.

Common Core:

Literacy:  W.1.7 Participate in a shared research and writing projects. W.1.8 with guidance and support from adults, recall information from experience or gather information from provided sources to answer a question (See Next. Gen. activities listed above).

Math: MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively (See Next. Gen. activities listed above).

Second Grade:

Next. Gen. Science: K-2-ETS1-1 Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to design a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool. Using the “Imagine Mars” lessons and support materials provided on the NASA website students should create design solutions for humans to live on Mars. These designs should be a group collaboration using research about the planet. Students should write a report about their design solution.

Common Core:

Literacy:  W.2.6 with guidance and support from adults, use a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing in collaboration with peers (See Next. Gen. activities listed above).

Mars counting craters

Counting and Mapping craters in the Martian Map Room.

Fourth Grade:

Next. Gen. Science: 4-ESS2-2 Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features. Students may make observations about bodies of water, craters, lakes, volcanoes, and other topographical features of Earth, and then compare these features using the Mars Mapping activities to make inferences about the similarities and differences between the two planets. The NASA images database of Mars may be useful, as well as the 3 D images, as well as the information provided for characterizing the climate and geology of Mars.

Common Core:

Literacy:  W.4.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic. W.4.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. (See explanation of activities for Next Gen. above)

Math: MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively (See explanation of activities for Next Gen. above).

Fifth Grade:

Next. Gen. Science: 5-ESS1-1 Support an argument that differences in the apparent brightness of the sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distance from the Earth. 5-ESS1-2 Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky. The curriculum activities provided about Solar System Scale  & Size may give students a frame of reference for comparison of the brightness of the sun compared to other planets and stars. Students may make predictions regarding the movement of Mars and Earth relative to other stars and planets. Graphs may be constructed of constellations and where they may be seen at different times for both Mars and Earth.

Common Core:

Literacy:  RI.5.7-Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly to solve a problem efficiently. W.5.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. SL.5.5 Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes. (See explanation of activities above for Next Gen).

Math: MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively, MP.4 Model with mathematics. (See explanation of activities above for Next Gen).

Middle School

MS-PS2-4 Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of interacting objects. MS-ESS1-2 Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system. Teachers may have students use the resources from NASA’s website with quick facts to research the properties of the planet Mars, from density to orbit, conjunction, and retrograde. The curriculum activities provided about Solar System Scale  & Size may give students frames of reference for comparison. Students may make mathematical predictions regarding the movement of Mars and Earth relative to the data collected.

MS-ESS1-3 Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system. The curriculum activities provided by NASA about Solar System Scale  & Size may give students frames of reference for comparison. Students may make mathematical predictions regarding the movement of Mars and Earth relative to the data collected.

MT-ETS1-1 Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that might limit possible solutions.  MS-ETS1-2 Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. Using the “Imagine Mars” lessons and support materials provided on the NASA website students should create design solutions for humans to live on Mars. These designs should then be compared and the solutions assessed using a rubric which the students develop.

High School

HS-ESS1-4 Use mathematical or computational representations to predict the motion of orbiting objects in the solar system. Common Core (WHST.9-12.2) (SL 11-12.4) (MP.2) (MP.4) (HSN-Q.A.1-3). Teachers may have students use the resources from NASA’s website with quick facts to research the properties of the planet Mars, from density to orbit, conjunction, and retrograde. The curriculum activities provided about Solar System Scale  & Size may give students frames of reference for comparison. Students may make mathematical predictions regarding the movement of Mars and Earth relative to the data collected.

When not writing her blog The Infinite Spider, Karen McDonald is a guest blogger, curriculum developer, science content editor, and outdoor educator with over thirteen years in informal science education. She has an MS in Biology and a BS in Environmental Science and Philosophy. Currently she works for Smithsonian and contracts for Discovery Channel.