Stardust@home Project Finds Life

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.

Extraterrestrial Life Science

Posted on Tue Aug 15, 2006


"Some users have cracked the trick admirably, boosting their skill ratings astronomically in a short period of time."

Some users have WAY too much time on their hands.
Posted by kat  on  Wed Aug 16, 2006  at  09:56 AM
What makes you think people who volunteer to spend countless hours poring over pictures to find dust specks might have a lot of free time, Kat?

But I guess you could say the same thing about people who spend their time reading about people who ...
Posted by Big Gary  on  Wed Aug 16, 2006  at  07:32 PM
Wasn't that the space capsule that crashed into Utah and split open when it landed, and a lot of the sample chambers were contaminated? I can imagine some poor guy looking through picture after picture on his computer, and suddenly having an aneurysm when he discovers signs of fire ants in space.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Wed Aug 16, 2006  at  09:29 PM
Yes, it is, and the dust in the SW U.S. is incredibly fine & full of iron in many areas. It resembles Mars dust in some cases. When a dust storm blows up, it can hide mountains, and if you live there, as I did during two of them, you very quickly learn to lock all your windows and turn the A/C off - real fast.
Posted by stork  in  the spiracles of space  on  Wed Aug 16, 2006  at  11:01 PM
Thanks for posting about this -- I went and signed up for the project. Anyone even slightly interested should go to the website and read about it. Fascinating.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Thu Aug 17, 2006  at  04:55 AM
Cracked open or not, the particles being searched for are embedded deeply in areogel, and surface particles are specifically discounted.
Particle traveling a breakneck speeds embed themselves in areogel leaving a clear tell-tale track in a sensor that is then withdrawn back into the capsule for the return trip. Scientists, being on average smarter than posters on hoax boards, designed it this way precisely to sequester true space particles from your every day dust.
Posted by slardybartfast  on  Thu Aug 17, 2006  at  03:39 PM
Okay, maybe I don't get this. Are these smart scientists actually soliciting amateurs to do this work? Wonder where the rest of the grant money went? Just wait'll some of this space dust winds up on ebay. Oh, wait - Someone will claim they saw a pattern in the dust resembling Jesus - then the people will pay.
Posted by stork  in  the spiracles of space  on  Thu Aug 17, 2006  at  03:55 PM
For a couple of years I helped with Project SETI, the SETI computer would download a bit of data to my computer and my computer would analyze it in the background while I was doing something else. I quit for two basic reasons, one my computer was too slow to do more than a couple of packs a month and second my computer was so slow that doing this work slowed everything down even more. I have a new, faster, computer but I haven't got back with them yet. I keep forgetting. Maybe this is something similar? It isn't people eyeballing pictures but private computers analyzing data?
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Fri Aug 18, 2006  at  07:42 PM
Go read the overview at the Stardust website, and then y'all can decorate your witty remarks with facts.

The quick answer, though, is that the dust tracks are easy for a trained human to spot, but very difficult for a computer to spot. Volunteers mark possible tracks for the real scientists to look at and verify. The amount of interstellar dust vs. acreage is the equivalent of 45 ants on a football field, found by searching squares 5" on a side. Not an easy task.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Sat Aug 19, 2006  at  12:54 AM
Actually, it is an impressive project. Good luck with your search. I don't have the time.
Posted by stork  in  the spiracles of space  on  Sat Aug 19, 2006  at  07:56 AM
Ah, thanks for the info cvirtue. Very much different than .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat Aug 19, 2006  at  01:46 PM
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