The news: NASA needs your help. No, you don't get to go to space, but you do get to help sift through mountains of awe-inspiring images from space.
For the first time ever, NASA is making tons of images, from the first American missions to space to shots from the International Space Station, available to everyone via a massive database called the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.
The photographs are the most detailed shots ever taken of our planet, and, when examined together, can help scientists get a better sense of Earth's overall health. While night photographs highlight our most-developed cities, daytime shots show patterns of air pollution and underwater blooms of algae. By studying patterns of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the levels of light pollution emitted from densely-packed cities, scientists can use these images to monitor global energy use, spot harmful soil erosion and water depletion and locate wildlife in danger of habitat destruction.
Phytoplankton blooming in the waters off of Norway and Russia on July 10, 2014. Image Credit: NASA Crew Earth Observations
But there's a problem: There are simply too many photographs to be useful.
That's where you come in. NASA is asking thousands of volunteers to help corral the shots into three categories based on their content. Sounds simple enough, right?
1. Dark skies: Anyone can help with this category, as there's no science background required. Simply sort images based on whether they are shots of cities, stars or something else.
2. Night cities: This one's a little more complex. Using a bit of high school geology, you can help match photos with their positions on a map.
Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba and Gaza on July 22, 2014. Image Credit: NASA Crew Earth Observations
3. Lost at night: These photos feature massive 310-mile city circumferences, so they might require a little bit more familiarity with geography. Scientists need help identifying the metropolises pictured in these shots.
North and South Korea at Night on Jan. 30, 2014. Image Credit: NASA Crew Earth Observations
Why citizen science matters: People without extensive science backgrounds have helped make some of NASA's most important discoveries, from providing researchers with critical astronomical data to answering serious scientific questions. As part of team science projects funded by NASA, citizen scientists have discovered thousands of objects in space, from insterstellar clouds of gas and dust (the stuff that leads to the formation of stars, and eventually entire galaxies) to powerful starbursts known as supernovas. Using a 3-D simulator that is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Project, some are even helping explore the geography of the Red Planet.
It's never too late to start helping make discoveries that will change the future.