April 18, 2014

Science on Your Desktop

Last week’s answer: Our luckless Venus transit astronomer was none other than 18th century French scientist Guillaume Le Gentil. Had he been successful, he would have no doubt been a more recognizable name today!

 SETI Classic.

SETI Classic.

  When nights turn cloudy, we here at Astroguyz head for ye’ ole Internet. The proliferation of online science programs has exploded in the past decade. We’re not just talking about blogs and info (such as Astroguyz!) about science; these are sites where users are performing valuable scientific research. Here is a (short?) list of some of our faves; Let us know if we missed someone’s’ favorite site, and we’ll add it’s distinctiveness with our own.             

     Search for ETs: The first still remains the best…the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home has been running for nearly 10 years now. This program pioneered what’s known as distributed computing, or downloading packets of data for your computer to mull over while it is idling or in the background. The idea is simple; it merely piggybacks on the mountain of data archived by the Arecibo radio telescope, patiently sifting for possible Doppler shift candidates. Hey, it’s better than wasting electrons on flying toasters. SETI now falls under the umbrella of BOINC. Pros: it is very unobtrusive and doesn’t try to commandeer the computer; Cons: most of Arecibo’s time is devoted toward extremely distant, extra-galactic sources; probably not prime ET country. It would be nice to see some scope time dedicated to searching nearby stars.  LIGO & Gravity Waves: Known as Einstein at Home, this site is similar to SETI in that it utilizes data from the Laser Interferometry Gravity wave Observatory (LIGO) project. Pro: the celestial constellation grid looks super cool while it runs; plus its neat to tell people you’re searching for gravity waves. Con: there is a chance that if you run Vista, you won’t see a screensaver! Like so many things in the modern computer universe, this program can be hit or miss with Windows Vista. Best to come back to this one once the bugs are worked out. This brings me to the platform that now aggregates most distributed computing;The Boinc Universe: These days, most distributed computing falls under the platform of BOINC. This is a program you download to your computer and it synchronizes whatever programs your currently hooked into; right now, I run SETI, LHC (the Large Hadron Collider), Climate Predictor(rather large for a non-super computer!), and Malaria Control. I’ve also tried Prime Grid, ABC at Home, and Rosetta. Pros: It helps to have a one stop shopping point for the bewildering array of programs out there, especially since the quality and usability varies wildly. We here at Astroguyz hate it when a new program attempts to take over our computer! Cons: as a screen saver, it doesn’t work so hot; I prefer to manually execute it and let it run. Also, you have to make sure the programs aren’t devouring your available memory as they run; I like to run them one at a time. Some have screensavers and some, like Prime Grid, don’t. While purists may eschew screensavers simply as “pretty pictures,” I think they serve the critical function of drawing in passers by to science. And nothing says “super-techno-geek” like SETI or LHC on your desktop! Hopefully, the much promised Boinc 7.0 will fix some bugs.

 LASCO C3 Camera. 

LASCO C3 Camera. Courtesy SOHO & the ESA.

SOHO & Comet Hunting: Another daily stop of mine. In 1995, the European Space Agency launched SOHO, the sunward staring solar observatory. An untended benefit has been that it also catches sun-grazing comets in its cameras. Amateurs quickly found that comets could be discovered by sifting through the LASCO C2 & C3 camera images. Hundreds have been discovered thus far. The US Naval observatory also runs a companion web site that allows you to report your discoveries. Pro: this is cutting edge stuff; plus the SOHO site has a wealth of scientific data. Con: the reporting tool on the sun grazer site is a bit counter-intuitive; some knowledge of JavaScript is required.   


Typical Stardust Image. Courtesy of Stardust.

Finding Stardust: What could be more glamorous than searching for dust particles? This program allows users, after a brief tutorial, to use a “virtual microscope” to search the collector plate returned to Earth by the Stardust probe for interstellar dust particles. The process is made competitive by ranking searchers based on score. The scoring is done by inserting test images with simulated dust particles in them. Some of the “dusters” get very competitive! What’s the incentive of being number 1? You get to say you’re number one. Plus you get a computer generated certificate for various milestones that are achieved. We here at Astroguyz are loitering at around number 135. Pros: the virtual microscope is fun to play with. And phase II is much tougher! Cons: unless you have a super fast connection, the movies can take a bit of time to load!

Galaxy Zoo: This is a new one passed on from the Naked Scientist podcast. New, as in we just logged in and checked it out this morning! Similar to Stardust, Galaxy Zoo lets the viewer sift through the deep space images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and classify galaxies. Again, it’s a way of farming out the grunt work of science, similar to Amazons’ Mechanical Turk process. While computers are great at running equations several light years long, they aren’t so hot at distinguishing your car keys from oh say, Lindsey Lohan.  That’s were humans and their fuzzy logic come in. Pros: the interface is dirt simple to use. Con: unlike Stardust, there doesn’t seem to be a scoring system by which we can discern who has the biggest hard drive. I wonder if someone on the other side of the universe is briefly considering the classification of our galaxy in a mouse click? And are they clicking said mouse with a suctioned tentacle and viewing us in far infrared? SLOOH: The era of remote viewing is here in the form of online observatories. SLOOH, for a fee, promises use of its remote observatory in the Canary Islands. I’m waiting for a weeklong string of cloudy nights to try this out. Has anyone discovered a comet or asteroid with this yet? I’m waiting for the day that I can control my own personal private observatory from my cell phone, complete with on screen image. Pro: the Canary Islands is a world class site. Con: the subscription fee may prove to be a barrier to some.  


Orbitron screenshot.

Orbitron & Satellite Tracking: And now for the free stuff: Orbitron is a stand-alone satellite tracking program. There are many places on the Net to track satellites, such as Heavens-Above or Calsky, but Orbitron tracks ‘em right from your desktop. Just download it to your computer and you can run it in the field, sans Internet. You do need an occasional connection to update the evolving TLE (two line element) data. I update about once a month. Pro: I always appreciate when someone builds something truly awesome and puts it out there for free! Unlike some of the questionable stuff out there, Orbitron would easily be worth a fee! Con: When there is a launch or orbital correction, it may take a day or so for the TLEs to update. The next step would probably be near real-time, RSS-like data. But hey, its free…   

Meteoracle: Another great stand alone-er… this one shows meteor shower data. Meteoracle is a handy tool to use prior to deciding whether you should stand in the cold at two AM and count meteors. Pro: Another great free tool! Con: the vagaries of meteor shower predictions are tough to guarantee accuracy; Meteoracle should be seen as a rough guide only. I’m impressed that anyone even attempted this program!

Planetarium Freeware: Sure, there are several $100 software packages out there, but several Planetarium programs out there are free! HNSky and Stellarium are my favorites. Both require some playing with to become proficient. Pro; again; free-ness is the catch phrase here at Astroguyz; my laptop has probably paid for itself several times over with free programs like these. Con: some astronomical skills are required.

 AstroAlerts: Astronomy related alerts are the whole reason we need things like the Internet. It not just for porn anymore! Services like Calsky (short for CALculated Sky) and Sky & Telescope can send you e-mail alerts on such time critical things as aurora, solar flares, gamma-ray bursts, or rocket launches. Yahoo also provides a wealth of astronomy related forums and RSS feeds. When comet Holmes flared up last fall, my first notice to look up that night came by a flurry of RSS posts. And to think, a decade ago we read about a comet months later in Sky & Telescope, sometimes months after it had passed! I barely missed an alert about an impeding Vandenberg ICBM launch while in Tucson; hey, Survivor was on…  

The National Virtual Observatory: On the cyber horizon, programs like Google Earth or the National Virtual Observatory promise to make a wealth of data available to observers online, expect to see more virtual discoveries of nebulae, asteroids, and even Exo-planets as amateurs patiently cull through mountains of data. I see whole virtual co-ops dedicated to real science. It’ll be high times for astronomy buffs! Each of these wonderful sites could be worth a post of their own, and that may indeed happen in coming months!


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