Planet-Hunting Scientists Turn to Online Gamers For Help

How to speed up the search for new worlds? Gamify it!

Could we interrupt for a second to ask your help?

One of the biggest challenges for any “citizen science” project, not surprisingly, is getting people to participate. A 2015 study of Zooniverse, a site that offers ordinary folks the chance to help with data-rich research projects ranging from moon hunting to snow-spotting, showed that the top 10 percent of contributors supplied (on average) 79 percent of the contributions. And fewer than one-third of people who sign up for a project return a second time.

A new exoplanet-seeking project will seek to overcome this problem by tapping into one of the more addictive leisure activities around: gaming. A 2014 Nielsen study shows that the average gamer played for more than six hours a week.

The new partnership is between a multiplayer game called EVE Online and scientists using data from the CoRoT (COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits) satellite, which searched for the signatures of exoplanets and studied the seismology of stars from 2007 to 2013. While this is not the first citizen science project related to extrasolar planets—Planet Hunters, Exoplanet Explorers and Disk Detective have been online for years—the CoRoT search is likely the first to team up with an existing multiplayer game.

“Most of the planets have been extracted from [the CoRoT data], but not all,” said Michel Mayor, a professor emeritus at the University of Geneva who co-discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star, 51 Pegasi, in 1995. Mayor, who is advising the EVE Online and scientific teams building the exoplanet search tool, gave a presentation on the initiative at the recent EVE Fanfest in Iceland.

The inspiration for the partnership came from Foldit, an online video game where gamers make predictions concerning protein folding. In 2011, gamers decoded the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme called Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, solving a problem that had baffled the scientific community for 15 years.

EVE Online already has a community of gamers that presumably are interested in space, given that its action takes place in a universe where space exploration, mining and combat are common. The mini CoRoT game will give players something to do when jumping between space stations, which can take several minutes to load. They will be given data and asked to classify them according to criteria yet to be established. The CoRoT module is expected to be released this spring.

Mayor said it’s unknown how many people will end up playing the mini-game, or whether they’ll be willing to participate with no guarantee of success. As of May 2013, the EVE service had 500,000 subscriptions, but there are some indications of a drop in subscriptions between then and 2015.

Mayor said it will take perhaps a dozen or more independent detections of a potential “planet” before scientists would take the time to check the raw data to see if it was a positive match. If a claimed planet does turn out to be real, there will be some way of acknowledging the gamers’ contributions in any published scientific paper, he said.

The aim is to include Kepler data in the EVE Online catalog as well. Other participants in the project include Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), the University of Reykjavik and the University of Geneva.

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