GUY RAZ, host:
Amateur astronomers are a key part of another space project, a project to identify every crater, every crevice, every boulder on the moon. It's called MoonZoo, and it's using images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA launched that spacecraft last year, and it carries a super-powerful camera that's been sending back some of the most detailed images of the moon's surface ever captured from afar.
But there's a problem: the LRO is sending back too much information, too many images for scientists to handle alone. So an astrophysicist at Oxford University named Chris Lintott decided to tap into the power of the Internet and the crowdsourcing phenomenon. And if you ever wanted to be a space explorer, here's your chance.
Chris Lintott is at our studio in London. Welcome to the program.
Dr. CHRIS LINTOTT (Astrophysicist, Oxford University): Thank you. It's great to be here.
RAZ: Explain how MoonZoo works.
Dr. LINTOTT: Well, it's very, very simple because it takes advantage of a very human ability, which is the ability to recognize patterns. So we ask people to go to our website, they register. You can look at a quick training video or read a paragraph of text, and then you're presented with an image of the lunar surface from Lunar Reconnaissance...
RAZ: This is just a random image?
Dr. LINTOTT: That's right, yeah. Most of the time, you'll see a landscape with craters, and we ask people to count the craters that they can see. There's a little tool that lets them mark the craters. And that tells us all sorts of things about the history and the age of that bit of a surface.
RAZ: When NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter a little less than a year ago, the idea was, of course, to map the moon's surface, to send back enough images that could create a 3D map of the surface. It sent back something like 70,000 images so far. Is the problem right now that there's just too many images for scientists to actually analyze, and that's why you used to go...
Dr. LINTOTT: Indeed.
RAZ: ...and so who are you looking for? What kind of people are you looking to help out with this project?
Dr. LINTOTT: Well, we need anybody and everybody, because it's interesting, it's one of those things that's very easy for a human to do. You can look at an image, you can identify craters. With a bit of help from the site, you can find some of these more unusual things, and you can spot the weird and the wonderful.
But that kind of pattern recognition task is something that's really tricky for computers to do. People have tried to do this with computerized routines, and they don't get results that are accurate enough to give us the science that we want. Computers don't make discoveries. They don't point at the thing in the corner and ask the question, what's that, which is this uniquely human ability.
RAZ: How do you verify the information that people submit? I mean, you could have children, you could have all kinds of people. How do you know that they're doing it correctly?
Dr. LINTOTT: Yeah, this is absolutely important. So what we do is we do have scientists look at a small fraction of the images. There are enough scientists to review less than a percent of these. And then we can compare those results to the results we get from our volunteers.
We have done some tests and people are very good at this. As far as we can tell, the random volunteers - particularly, we recruited people off the floor at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and the results we got from that are as good as you'd get from an expert.
It goes back to what I was saying. It really is just a simple human task. We evolved to recognize patterns, and in a way, you know, it's not that different from spotting the stripes of the tiger amongst jungle foliage. It isn't a million miles from spotting the outlines of craters on the lunar surface.
RAZ: But the results of this research have potentially real-world implications. I mean, this could actually advance thinking about...
Dr. LINTOTT: It will. We have a whole host of scientists from the Europe and the U.S. who are waiting for these results, who've already committed to using them in their own research. So we know that this information is needed. We're used to, on programs like this, telling people about things that scientists have done.
Normally, I'd be sitting here and I'd tell you about the wonderful things that my colleagues and myself had discovered. Here, we actually need everyone to get involved. You don't have to listen to us. We can actually get people directly involved in the scientific process and the process of discovery and of exploration.
RAZ: And it will finally answer the question as to whether the Soviets really did send somebody up to the moon and just leave him there.
Dr. LINTOTT: If they're there, we'll find him (unintelligible), I'm sure.
RAZ: We'll find his remains.
Mr. LINTOTT: Yeah. That's - absolutely.
RAZ: Or maybe just hanging out by a bonfire.
Mr. LINTOTT: Yeah, They will see the bonfire or him waving or, you know, (unintelligible) saluting the camera, I would imagine.
RAZ: Some of that. Yeah.
Dr. LINTOTT: Yeah. Absolutely.
RAZ: So that's astrophysicist Chris Lintott. He's the founder of MoonZoo. It's based out of Oxford University in the U.K.
Chris Lintott, thank you so much.
Mr. LINTOTT: My pleasure.