Astronomy and Astrophysics

SETI institute Seeks Citizen Scientists to Help Save the World; Partners with NASA and Other Organizations to Host Asteroid Hackathon Saturday, Oct. 25

Event part of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge; SETI-Led Hackathons and Game Jams Connect Leading Scientists, Data Sets, and Citizens to Tackle Complex Challenges

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. – Oct. 24, 2014 – The SETI Institute has partnered with EchoUser, SpaceGAMBIT, Maui Makers, the Minor Planet Center, NASA, and Further by Design to host an Asteroid Hackathon on Saturday, Oct. 25. Using the world’s best sources for asteroid data, hackers from all over the world will transform data into digestible, visual information for citizen scientists, allowing them to help save the planet from rocky space invaders.

The main event will occur at the SETI Institute’s offices, located at 189 Bernardo Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94043 on Saturday, October 25, from 8:30 AM - 7:00 PM. For more information, visit:

“The types of scientific challenges we face at home on planet Earth are as numerous as they are complex,” said David Black, president and CEO, The SETI Institute. “Whether it’s about dodging massive asteroids, finding habitable planets, or learning more about life of Earth, we’re committed to presenting opportunities that foster greater collaboration between the world’s leading experts, top research organizations, and curious individuals. We can all play a role in advancing the state of human knowledge.”

The event is part of NASA’s larger Asteroid Grand Challenge which focuses on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them. The SETI Institute, which is a hub for research into life in the universe, believes that this event — and the collaborations it fosters — will be key to protecting our planet and understanding Earth’s relationship with the space surrounding it.

Saving the Planet, through Competition

Through the Asteroid Hackathon, attendees will engage astronomers, other space nerds, and the general public with information about the danger and wonder of asteroids. If a large asteroid impacted Earth, it could have a profound—and perhaps extinction-level—effect on our planet. In fact, 66 million years ago, a single asteroid deleted three quarters of all species. That’s why NASA’s Minor Planet Center welcomes hackers to its archives.

Teams will be made of 3 - 5 people, including at least one designer/user experience expert, one engineer/developer, and one citizen scientist. The team that develops the most promising solution to interpreting high-level data will be awarded a cash prize of $1,500 and scientist support to further develop its idea.

To learn more about the data and chat with other hackers, EchoUser will host a welcome happy hour on Friday, October 24, 6:00 PM - 8:30 PM at 115 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104.

Inaugural SETI-JAM Achieves Success, Blends Games with Drake Equation

The first SETI-JAM took place at the SETI Institute — and satellite sites across the world — October 17-19. Over the course of the weekend, teams used real scientific data to develop 18 game prototypes, themed on the Drake Equation.

The SETI-JAM asked its more than 200 registrants to use data from some of NASA’s highest-profile telescopes, including the planet-hunting Kepler, to create immersive, addictive games that would engage citizen scientists in the quest to understand the origin and nature of life in the universe. More than 50 jammers converged on the SETI Institute’s Mountain View offices, while others participated virtually from as far away as Sweden and Norway.

The SETI-JAM kicked off with presentations — all streamed live online — from SETI Institute scientists Pascal Lee, Jon Richards, Michael Busch, Franck, Marchis, Margaret Race, Jason Rowe, and Douglas Caldwell. They introduced scientific data on Mars, the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, asteroids, planetary protection, and extrasolar planets. Jammers had exclusive and curated access to their data, and eleven Institute scientists collaborated to help the teams interpret the files. Together, they turned the often-complex images and columns of numbers into visual, exploratory, and play-based games.

Jammers and scientists spent the weekend together, figuring out how to use the data to tell compelling stories and engage people of all ages. The SETI Institute hopes such an Internet-based, active, and fun approach to science will spur students to see data as something to be toyed with and manipulated. This fun, unintimidating take on science may encourage those who have never considered research to pursue careers on the very topics the games address.

To learn more about (and play!) the games, visit Each team’s final presentation, which includes information about the science that went into the code, can be seen here

New Meteor Shower "Just A Memory" Of What Once Was There

MOUNTAIN VIEW – The weak display of last month’s Camelopardalids meteor shower, the result of the close passage of comet 209P/LINEAR, may have disappointed backyard observers, but this never-before-seen shower now has scientists excited.  An analysis of airborne and ground-based observations published in the latest issue of the Journal of the International Meteor Organization finds that this comet's dust was unusually fragile, and had fallen apart into undersized meteors that were largely invisible.

Frame-by-frame development of a Camelopardalid on 2014 May 24 at 01h58m08s UT. Original recording by Peter C. Slansky; compilation by Jim Albers and Peter Jenniskens.

“Some mechanism was at work that efficiently fragmented the larger meteoroids,” says Peter Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer with the SETI Institute. Ten years ago, Jenniskens, together with colleague Esko Lyytinen, first predicted that a new shower would appear on May 24. 

On that evening, Jenniskens’ research team took to the skies in a Beechcraft King Air 90 aircraft, a flight sponsored by the SETI Institute, and in little over two hours detected 21 Camelopardalids, predominantly faint meteors. 

“Our best meteor was no more luminous than the star Vega”, says Jenniskens, “but it gave us a clue as to why there were few bright ones: It was so fragile that the meteoroid suddenly dispersed into a cloud of dust at the end of its trajectory." 

Similar behavior was displayed during the 1933 and 1946 Draconid meteor storms, a consequence of close encounters with comet 21P/Giacobinni-Zinner. That comet was hyper-active, and Jenniskens suspects that the ejected dust grains were still embedded with ice.  The larger grains would have been destroyed when the grains warmed up and the ice was lost.

Comet 209P/Linear, however, was a weakly active comet, not known for ejecting ice-laden dust. 

“We are not sure yet what destroyed the larger meteoroids in this case,” Jenniskens says.  “The meteoroids may have simply been too frail to survive ejection, or the larger meteoroids could have been lost in the many years since they were ejected.”

One explanation for the lack of large meteoroids is that they failed to survive the harsh conditions of space. The cometary dust encountered by Earth during May was more than a century old. 

“We may have been just a few centuries late in catching a good show,” says Jenniskens. “The shower we saw was just a faint memory of what once was there.”



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