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Cosmic Software: Turn Your Phone Into A Cosmic Ray Detector

Photo Credit: NASA


Project: CRAYFIS

Flip through any popular science magazine, and you’re sure to find a piece or two about the latest theories and findings in astrophysics and cosmology. That’s because the mysteries of the universe — and by extension our place in it — never fail to fascinate.

In general, though, the ability to directly participate in research in these fields has been limited… until now. An intriguing new project called CRAYFIS wants you to turn your phone into a cosmic ray detector.

When cosmic rays come to Earth, they hit the atmosphere and produce a shower of particles several kilometers wide. Very-high energy rays produce very large showers, but they are rare, and these can only be detected by equipment with a huge surface area. Previous attempts to study these particles have been done with large, expensive, and dedicated facilities, like the Pierre Auger Observatory.

Your phone likely has a camera with sensors that can detect cosmic ray showers; all you need to do to become an astrophysicist is download an app to make use of the existing equipment on your phone. Once installed, you can forget about it. If particles are detected, the software will make note of the location of the phone and upload the data.

In addition to becoming part of a very large detector array, which is kind of cool all by itself, if your device collects data used in a scientific paper, you’ll be given author credit. To join the project, simply fill in the beta tester form on the front page of the site. If you’d like to read the paper about the project in the meantime, check it out here.

Thinking About Thinking


Photo Credit: Serge Melki via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Serge Melki via Wikimedia Commons


Project: Online Wisdom Lab (OWL)

If you have ever formally studied psychology, one thing probably stood out: the subjects of the studies you read about were nearly always college students. A forthcoming set of apps hopes to change that.

The Online Wisdom Lab at the University of Birmingham is developing a series of surveys and games to learn about changes in thinking skills, decision making, and health behaviour during adulthood.

“We currently have no idea how our thinking changes as we progress through adulthood, the time when we make many of the most important decisions of our lives,” says Lily FitzGibbon, one of the researchers involved in the project. “To tackle this obvious gap in our knowledge, we’ve designed an app full of tests and questionnaires to see how and when changes happen as we get older and wiser.”

The project is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, and the apps are due to be launched in May of this year. If you live in Birmingham, you can check out a number of events taking place ahead of the launch to generate interest. Otherwise, you can check out the Facebook page and Twitter feed for the project to get a notice when the project launches.

Hunt For Asteroids… At Your Desk

Asteroids, we have a few. (Image credit: NASA)
Asteroids, we have a few. (Image credit: NASA)

Project: Asteroid Data Hunter App

A citizen science challenge has spawned a citizen science app.

In 2014, NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge. In a series of contests, participants were asked to develop improved algorithms to find asteroids in telescope images. The challenge offered more than $50,000 in prizes, and concluded in December.

The winning solutions from each contest have now been combined to produce a desktop application to hunt asteroids. The app is available for Windows (7.1+) and Mac (10.2.X+) users, with a Linux Ubuntu version coming soon. You can grab the app at this link.

Astronomers search for asteroids by comparing images taken of the same piece of sky over time, to see what has moved. This used to be done by hand, but with the proliferation of quality imagery from a number of ground-based telescopes, there is now a glut of data to mine. Computers can process data imagery very quickly… with the right algorithm.

Asteroids are a major focus for NASA right now. Asteroids have struck Earth in the past, often with devastating consequences. One of the best known recent impacts was the Tunguska event, where an impact or explosion knocked down millions of trees over a huge section of Siberia in 1908.

On the positive side, we may soon be able to capture asteroids to mine them for their resources, both for use here on Earth, and to help establish colonies on other planets or moons. Asteroids are known to contain water (in the form of ice), and elements like iridium, palladium, and platinum.