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Crowdsourcing looks to heavens: collected online snaps of Comet Holmes determine orbit.

Some people scour the Internet for pictures of celebrities and cats.

Others search for comets.

After performing a Yahoo! image search for photos of Comet Holmes, which whizzed by Earth in 2007, a team of astronomers used the images they found to reconstruct the comet's orbit in three dimensions--proving that astronomers can take advantage of data provided by unwitting participants.

"I think it's the beginning of something really, really important," Harvard University's Alyssa Goodman says of the study, which appears in the August Astronomical Journal. "The biggest deal is the availability of all this data that isn't being collected for the purpose it was used."

Though the Internet is crammed with freely available information--trends on Twitter, for example, can point toward breaking news--organizing it into something useful for science takes skill.

When Dustin Lang, a computer scientist at Princeton University, decided to harness the power of picture-posting astro-observers, he asked an online computer program called Astrometry.net to filter the images. Astrometry.net uses the objects in each photo--stars, for example--to determine where in the sky the image is located.

Initially, the Yahoo! search returned more than 2,400 images. Those included the comet, as well as pictures of completely different things.

"There were two cats in the original search results," Lang says.

Lang and David Hogg of New York University used Astrometry.net to narrow the results to 1,299 usable images--a motley collection of photos snapped from different locations with different cameras and exposures. Then the team reconstructed the comet's orbit in 3-D--and came close to the orbit determined by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"This is a look at what we could do with really, really heterogeneous data that we don't really know anything about," Lang says. "It was more work than we expected."

And it's not just astronomy that could benefit from such crowdsourcing. "There are many other fields where it will apply later," Goodman says, suggesting that medical images and weather data could be similarly mined.

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Title Annotation:Atom & Cosmos
Author:Drake, Nadia
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 8, 2012
Words:344
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