New Horizons Ice Hunters

Between 2004 and 2008 I used to work for a lab of  the Netherlands Cancer Institute, where scientists crystallised proteins to be able model them. Crystallization is a neat way of lining them up perfectly. This is necessary because they are so small that if you measure just one of them, you don’t get a signal. If you put a few precisely in a row, their signals add up and you start to see things.

Crystallizing proteins isn’t very easy though. They used mainly solutions of salt and other solvents, but the whole thing was basically a trial and error process. They had plates with wells lined up in rows, each with a slightly different solution. Robots would periodically take lots of pictures of them, so that the scientists could see which ones made progress. Seeing a crystal form was usually reason for cake.

We had an algorithm that could recognize interesting artefacts, but scoring these images is typically something that the human brain does a much better job of than computers. You don’t even need to be a trained scientist.  I did some of them too. A short instruction was enough to be able to tell what’s what.

I had to think about this when I stumbled upon the New Horizons Ice Hunters web site. New Horizons is a probe on its way to Pluto. When it gets there in 2015 it will return awesome pictures back to us, just like the Cassini probe is doing now at Saturn. But it won’t stay there (obviously – it doesn’t have the means to slow down). After Pluto it will continue toward the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid belt outside Neptune’s orbit, filled with icy objects called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

The problem is, these KBOs have to be identified first. And like recognizing the crystals, that is something that humans are better at than computers. Ice Hunters lets the visitor identify these distant worlds of ice, thus helping out the scientists. It’s really fun (and addictive) to do, and not that hard. In 38 images I found 19 of them, and I just got started.

There is a tutorial video and some text on where the images come from. You are presented with small square images, on which you can click to indicate where the KBOs are. There are lots and lots of images to be scored, so there is a lot of work to do. Every image is scored by a few people, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes. And before you can start, you need to sign up, so that they can attach your name to your results.

I find that pretty cool.

Categorised as: cool stuff, science

One Comment

  1. […] e-mail was from Explore Zooniverse, the organisation behind IceHunters, a site which lets you look at pictures taken by telescopes, to look for so-called Kuiper Belt […]