Last year, DPR AmSci Journal wrote about a great new citizen science program called Citizen Sky [read from August 26, 2009]. This project is collecting observational data on the current eclipsing of the variable binary star system epsilon Aurigae. The primary star is estimated to be 300 times the diameter of our Sun, and the eclipsing object orbits at about the equivalent distance of Neptune from the Sun.

Discovered in 1821 by Johann Fritsch, the system has continued to be a mystery with its odd 27-year eclipsing cycle coupled with a 600+ day eclipse, which has been increasing in length during each cycle.
Eclipse durations measurements of epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy
Eclipse durations measurements of epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy

The most recent plausible hypothesis to describe this interaction was proposed in 1965, which suggests that an edge-on disk, possibly surrounding another star or planet, is orbiting the giant star. This idea was just recently confirmed with the direct observation of the current eclipse from an international team lead by Brian Kloppenborg at the University of Denver, and joined by groups from the University of St Andrews, Georgia State, and the University of Michigan.

Combining the images from four separate telescopes, this innovative method uses optical interferometry to generate a spectacular view of the eclipse estimated to be 140 times sharper than what the Hubble Space Telescope could generate.

CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy University of Michigan Astronomy

CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy University of Michigan Astronomy.

The eclipse began in August 2009, and will be in its dim minimum throughout 2010 until returning to normal brightness in the summer of 2011. Over one thousand citizen scientists have been participating and more are still being requested to help collect as much data as possible over the next year.

With all of the participants in this science program, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens working with the ever-growing collection of real science opportunities for the public, it is interesting to start considering how this participation actually influences the individual volunteers.

Graduate student and staff member at the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Aaron Price, has been developing his thesis in science education at Tufts University to begin exploring this important connection between science literacy and the volunteer citizen scientists. Using a series of pre- and post-surveys administered to actual users of the Citizen Sky project, Mr. Price develops quantitative reviews of how some aspects of scientific literacy can be impacted by direct participation in collaborative citizen science programs.

This type of research should become an important building block for the continued success and development of future citizen science programs. By learning to focus in on how to best connect a broader population into an increased level of general scientific understanding and appreciation will not only allow for scientific advances to progress more efficiently, but the participating cultures will benefit as a whole with more sophisticated ways of living.

You may watch Mr. Price's dissertation defense live, and even participate yourself with questions, on November 1, 2010. With this streaming event, we should participate as active citizen scientists to help guide the professional scientific community in the underlying understanding of how these projects connect with the participants so that future citizen science projects may be improved and developed with new education innovations.


"Scientific Literacy of Adult Participants in an Online Citizen Science Project"
Time: Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:30pm (EST)

Location: Crane Room, Paige Hall, 12 Upper Campus Road, Medford, MA 02155

If you do watch the defense and participate, please comment below to tell us what you thought of the discussion. How do you feel your personal scientific literacy has changed since participating in citizen science programs? Do you think that these projects are valuable methods for expanding the general public's appreciation for scientific understanding?

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"Online streaming of dissertation defense about Citizen Sky" :: blog posting by Aaron Price :: October 22, 2010 :: [ READ ]

"Scientists capture 'terrifying' Tolkien-like eclipse (w/ Video)" :: :: April 7, 2010 :: [ READ ]

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Learn more about the Citizen Sky project and register to prepare to submit your own observations of epsilon Aurigae. There is still plenty of time to participate as the 600-plus-day long eclipse in only half-way complete.