Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

A Citizen Scientist’s Guide (and Pronunciation Guide) to the Camelopardalids Meteor Shower

By May 22nd, 2014 at 11:22 am | Comment

209P/LINEAR comet

How to use the American Meteor Society’s smartphone app (iOS and Android) to create observer reports of fireballs and meteors during the Camelopardalids this weekend.

Coming soon to a sky near you: a brand new meteor shower!

Barring all cloudy conditions and light-polluted landscapes, you should be able to bear witness to the Camelopardalids this Friday, May 23, 2014 (going into the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2014).

As Earth orbits the sun, sometimes it passes through the stream of debris left by a comet. If the timing is just right, the debris enters the atmosphere and create trails of light in the sky, more colloquially referred to as “shooting stars.” Alas, they aren’t stars at all but tiny pieces of pebble, rock, and grains as fine as sand.

The comet responsible for this shower is 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 by Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, for which it’s nicknamed. It came to closest to our sun (perihelion) on May 6, 2014, but it’ll miss Earth by about 8.3 million kilometers (about 5 million miles) at its closest on May 29, 2014. Don’t worry — we’re not in any danger from it…this time around.

What you can do while you watch the Camelopardalids

The American Meteor Society invites you to report fireball and meteor sightings with their smartphone app and browser-based field logger. The smartphone app allows witnesses to log details about their observations using a mobile device, meaning you can take it with you to your preferred viewing locations — your backyard, a hiking trail, the beach, etc. Sensors in the phone provide a means of triangulating your GPS location, the azimuth and elevation levels, and start/end points of the meteor. Using this data, the AMS can not only accurately determine where meteors occur, but they can also use the data to trace their orbits to their origins.

Simply start your observing session and then each time you see a meteor point to that place in the sky and swipe your finger on the screen in the direction the meteor traveled. Observation data is uploaded to the AMS website, available under your profile there and shared with the scientific community. You can also use the AMS app to look up a meteor shower calendar with star charts and moon conditions for all major and minor showers throughout the year.

[You can also read about contributor Angus Chen's conversation with Mike Hankey from the American Meteor Society on SciStarter's Citizen Science Salon at DiscoverMagazine.com.]

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 10.40.28 AM

No matter where you’re watching it from, this cosmic event should be exciting and accessible to astronomers and amateur citizen scientists alike.

Oh, and in case you’re curious about how to pronounce “Camelopardalids,” don’t worry — Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has got you covered:

References:

Plait, Phil. “We May Get a Major Meteor Shower on Friday May 23-24.” Bad Astronomy. MAY 20 2014 7:00 AM.

209P/LINEAR. (2014, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:54, May 22, 2014.

“Fireballs.” American Meteor Society (2014, May 21).

Image: Wikimedia


Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She is also the STEM Story Project Associate for Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. This fall, she’ll be a masters candidate in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.

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

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

IMG_6887

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

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Spring Projects!

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Comment

l_science

Illustration by Tony Auth

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas highlights some spring projects that you can get involved in this season.

Spring is in the air, and so it citizen science! As SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier told WHYY, “Springtime is the time for citizen science [...] So you can find, in our project finder, everything from collecting information about precipitation to checking out bird nests and looking for incubating eggs.”

Listen to a teaser of the piece below, then read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more about the variety of projects you can get involved in. You’ll find the full audio there.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to Lily@SciStarter.com.

whyy_blue1

 

WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Your Radionuclides and You: Citizen Scientists Can Help Monitor Fukushima Radioactivity

By February 25th, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Comment

The story of a nuclear disaster and what can do you as a citizen scientist to help assess the residual aftermath.

[In the news - KQED Science recently spoke to project organizer Ken Buessler about the radiation in our ocean.]

Three years ago on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami shook Japan. The loss of power that ensued eventually led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant overheating. Four out of six reactors suffered meltdowns, spitting radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and directly into the ocean. 19,000 people died or went missing.

Almost immediately, the news ignited fears of how this would impact marine ecosystem and human health over time. Today, three years later, there is still no U.S. government agency monitoring the spread of radiation from Fukushima along the west coast or Hawaiian Islands.

In reaction to this, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Center of Marine and Environmental radiation (CMER) are providing the equipment and the facilities to track the spread of radionuclides across the Pacific Ocean. Even further—they’re opening this process up to the public, to you.

How Radioactive is Our Ocean?(official site)is a citizen science project that allows the public to propose sampling locations, raise the cost for testing and shipping of the supplies ($500-600), take samples and analyze 20 liters (about 5 gallons) of seawater for signs of radiation (cesium-137 isotopes) from Fukushima. Everything is provided by WHOI and CMER. There are three main ways that you can participate:

  1. Help the project reach their goal by donating to sample an existing site. Click  “HELP FUND A LOCATION” on the main page and choose to support one of the many sites that are underway;
  2. Propose a new sampling site. Click “PROPOSE A LOCATION” and see what is involved. If accepted(we are trying to get spread of locations up/down coast), we ask for a donation of $100 and we’ll set up a fundraising webpage, add that page to our website, and send you a sampling kit once your goal of $550 to $600 has been reached.
  3. Donate to general capacity building and public education activities at CMER.

Here’s a video showing how you would take samples from locations near you:

How is radioactivity measured in the ocean?

“We live in a sea of radioactivity,” says Ken Buesseler, marine chemist at the WHOI. “The danger is in the dose.” Buesseler spent the bulk of his career studying oceanography and the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea. He goes on to explain:

The unit to describe the level of radiation in seawater samples is the Becquerel (Bq), which equals the number of radioactive decay events per second. This number is reported per cubic meter (i.e. 1,000 liters or 264 gallons) of water.

A typical water sample will likely contain less than 10 Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3) from cesium-137. The amount of cesium-137 that leaked into the water as a result of Fukushima was in the penta-Becquerels (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 Becquerels). By comparing the amount of cesium-137, which has a relatively long 30-year half life, and cesium-134, which has a much shorter, 2-year half life, scientists can “fingerprint” the contamination from Fukushima and estimate how much was released into the Pacific.

Is that much radiation significant?

The world’s oceans contain many naturally occurring radioactive isotopes like potassium-40, which comes from the erosion and breakdown of rocks. Bananas, known for their potassium content, release about 15 Bq on average. That means that the radiation leakage was about the same as that of 76 million bananas, to put things in perspective. This is actually around and about (perhaps a little over) the amount of radiation Fukushima was allowed to dump into the environment before the disaster. However, WHOI and CMER still make the case that it would be important to monitor and track cesium-137 and cesium-134 levels in the ocean, given future projection.

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 9.30.16 PM

Fukushima plume predictions for cesium-137 levels in the Pacific Ocean for April 2016

How are marine species affected?

Because the cesium-137 isotope is soluble, it mixes well with ocean currents. “The spread of cesium once it enters the ocean can be understood by the analogy of mixing cream into coffee,” writes Buesseler. “At first, they are separate and distinguishable, but just as we start to stir the cream forms long, narrow filaments or streaks in the water.” After they form streaks, they blend in and are diluted (think about how coffee turns into a lighter color after you add cream).

Fish and other forms of marine life can take it up and excrete it, depositing it in the sediment below. The marine life most contaminated with Fukushima radiation is found nearest to the reactor, but some species, like Bluefin tuna, are far-ranging and even migrate across the Pacific. When these animals leave the Northeast coast of Japan, some isotopes remain in their body, but others, like cesium-137 and cesium-134, naturally flush out of their system.

If you’re interested in proposing a sampling location to help the WHOI and CMER study the distribution of radionuclides in the Pacific, get started with the project or help spread the word about it!

Image: EPA, ourradioactiveocean.org

References:

Goodman, Amy. “Fukushima is an ongoing warning to the world on nuclear energy.” The Guardian. 16 January 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/16/fukushima-is-a-warning

Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/08/130807-fukushima-radioactive-water-leak/

CMER public education links, such as ABCs of radioactivity
http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=119836


Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She currently works in public media at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician.  In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui. 

Citizen Science on the Radio: The Great Backyard Bird Count

By February 8th, 2014 at 12:08 am | Comment

l_pat1200

This is the sixth year Pat Evans will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count from New Jersey. (Kimberly Haas/for The Pulse)

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas  tags along with local birdwatcher Pat Evans as she studies migratory bird patterns and fluxes in bird populations from New Jersey.

The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place from February 14th to 17th this year, so get started and let us know how many birds you count in the comments! Or “tweet us” (get it?) at @SciStarter when you participate!

Listen here to learn more about how this all contributes to a larger picture! Here’s an excerpt from WHYY’s related blog post:

“All you have to do is bird, either one of the four days or all four days, a minimum of 15 minutes,” [Stephen Saffier] said. “Just look out your back window, count the birds that are there in your yard. You can go to parks, you can go to schoolyards. And you tally that information on a piece of paper and then you submit it online and it all gets bundled up into this data source for Cornell and Audubon.

Recently, Science Matters, a multi-platform initiative to engage the public in STEM media, created a how-to video for those interested in participating in the GBBC this year. Their intern Margaret Carmel gives us a walkthrough.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to Lily@SciStarter.com.

whyy_blue1

WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)