The stardust spacecraft spent seven years collecting outer-space dust in large sheets of aerogel. Now it's back on Earth and researchers have enlisted the help of internet users to find microscopic specks of dust in the aerogel. They taken 1.6 million images of the gel with a scanning microscope and are distributing these to volunteers
. Already some people have found signs of life. Unfortunately it's not extraterrestrial life
On its first day, the website shut down due to heavy traffic. And a few hours after re-opening, it had a stranger problem. In among the speckled grey aerogel pictures appeared photos of weddings, bike riders, sunbathers and more. As the Stardust team put it: "Random images of unknown origin appear in the focus movies. We do not yet understand their origin, but they are not images of the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector." Amused volunteers speculated about hackers, mischievous team members or problems with the server.
And things get worse, because a lot of the internet volunteers are cheating:
The system randomly checks volunteers' efforts by occasionally throwing in a 'test' photo, where the Stardust team already knows there is or isn't a sign of a dust particle. The volunteer's performance on these gives them a skill rating, which determines how seriously a claim to find a real dust particle is taken. As was quickly documented on the website's forums, however, it is easy to cheat by simply looking carefully at the URL associated with each picture in order to distinguish 'test' pictures from the real ones that have yet to be analysed. Some users have cracked the trick admirably, boosting their skill ratings astronomically in a short period of time.