10 Online Research Projects You Can Do at Home

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Technology now permeates nearly every facet of our lives. Whether shopping online, collaborating with distant colleagues, or merely looking for information, the Internet has brought the world to our desktop or smartphone. One of the most exciting things to emerge in recent years is the advent of online citizen science. This enables volunteers to participate in research or to make their personal computer available over a network, where the combined computing power of hundreds or thousands of computers can find answers to problems that would otherwise take centuries to solve. Here is a look at 10 diverse “crowd-sourcing” or “distributed-computing” projects that await the curious online. Best of all, no experience is necessary, and if you or your computer makes a great scientific find, you get the credit.

10. Record Old Weather

Volunteers are needed to help digitize old weather records from ship's logs.

Photo credit: Pash Photography

Part of the Zooniverse galaxy of projects, Old Weather seeks volunteers to digitize data from scanned copies of old ship’s logs. Standing orders for British naval vessels throughout the 19th century and into the 20th was to record the weather conditions once every six hours. This data may give researchers a glimpse into worldwide climatic conditions of that era, which could establish patterns that might help determine future weather.


9. Study Whale Songs

Volunteers can listen to whale songs to help scientists unlock the key to their communication patterns.

Killer whale; Minette Layne

Launched by Scientific American in 2011, Whale FM seeks to classify and characterize the songs of killer and pilot whales as part of on-going research by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This is done by volunteers after a brief tutorial and requires no previous technical background. This type of project is especially suited to crowd-sourcing due to the large data sets involved.


8. Help Predict Future Climate

You can help model future climate change using your home computer.

Photo credit: Tom Wang/Shutterstock.com

Part of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or BOINC, Climate Prediction is a distributed-computing program that allows participants to help analyze packets of data using their idle home computers. This program currently utilizes more than 35,000 computer hosts to help model the future climate up to the year 2100. This will test the accuracy of current climate models, and has thus far completed over 127 million model-years worth of data.


7. Join Search For Malaria Cure

Online volunteers can help search for a cure for malaria.

Anopheles albimanus mosquito; James Gathany/CDC

A World Community Grid project, Fight Malaria is a distributed-computing program that uses your computer’s processing power to analyze interactions between simulated chemical compounds and target proteins. Sounds complex, sure, but the results could lead to a more effective treatment for the scourge of malaria. The pooled computer resources of this program allow researchers to accomplish in one year what would have taken a century to do with their previous computer resources.


6. Search For Prime Numbers

Your computer can help discover new prime numbers in its idle time.

Part of a prime digit discovered through BOINC.

No fancy screensavers here, just a BOINC-run distributed-computing program that is seeking extremely large prime numbers. Beyond just being mathematically unique, large prime numbers are used in data encryption and play a key role in computer and online banking security. The most recent prime number discovered by the program and currently the record-holding “largest known Generalized Fermat mega prime” was a whopper 2,558,647 digits long discovered by Michael Goetz on Nov. 19, 2011. It’s certainly a nobler use of your computer processor’s idle time than the display of flying toasters.


5. Hunt For New Planets

Volunteers are combing through data in search of new exoplanets.

Photo credit: NASA, ESA, A. Schaller

Another Zooniverse project, Planet Hunters asks volunteers to sift through data gathered by the Kepler spacecraft as it stares at thousands of stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra looking for dips in their brightness caused by a transiting exoplanet. After a brief tutorial, users examine graphs on their computer and tag telltale signs that might point to a new exoplanet. As in many crowd-sourced projects, errors in marking are filtered out as a statistical model is built by thousands of volunteers. Planet Hunters has already made an exoplanet discovery, one that volunteers will share credit for on the scientific paper.


4. Search for Interstellar Dust

If you have some spare time, you can help search for signs of microscopic interstellar dust brought back to Earth by a probe.

Artist’s conception of NASA Stardust Probe; NASA/JPL

In 2006, NASA’s Stardust mission returned a sample capsule to Earth containing a collector used during the spacecraft’s encounter with Comet Wild 2 in 2003. Since its return, the sample collector’s array has been scanned at high resolution and is available online for volunteers to browse via a virtual microscope looking for impacts of interstellar dust particles. This is an instance where a sharp human eye may be more effective in catching something than a computerized search. It won’t be easy to find a particle — researchers estimate the collector returned less than 100 particles about a micron in size, but finding them, “will be like searching for a handful of ants on a football field while searching one 5 cm x 5 cm square at a time.” Thus far, thousands of Stardust@Home volunteers have given it a try, and in 2010, the first discovery by the project was announced, a dust grain dubbed Orion.


3. Search For Astronomical Discoveries in Online Data

Some astronomical discoveries are made many years after the initial data was collected.

Moon Despina transits across Neptune’s surface; NASA/JPL/Copyright: Ted Stryk

The increase in data storage and retrieval speeds have meant that gigabytes worth of astronomical data is available to anyone wishing to sift through it, with more to come. And interesting discoveries are waiting to be made — a shadow transit of Neptune’s tiny moon Despina photographed by Voyager 2 in 1989 was discovered by amateur astronomer Ted Stryk almost 20 years later. Another wonderful resource has been the European Space Agencies’ Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which monitors the Sun but has allowed amateur sleuths to discover over 2,100 comets in its 13 years of operation.


2. Search For Extraterrestrial Signals

Your computer can be used to help search for extraterrestrial signals.

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

The distributed-computing program that started it all, SETI@Home launched in 1999 and has since processed over 2 billion results looking for extraterrestrial signals. Initially utilizing data collected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, SETI@Home has expanded to include broadband short-term pulses via its AstroPulse program and may expand to include data from the Australian-based Parkes radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. No signal from an extraterrestrial civilization has been identified in the SETI@Home data thus far, but such an announcement would obviously have tremendous implications.


1. Classify New Galaxies

Volunteers are needed to help scientists help classify galaxies.

Grand Design Spiral Galaxy M81; DuckofD3ath

The brainchild of astronomers Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski, Galaxy Zoo was launched in July 2007 to study the distribution of spiral galaxies in the universe in hopes of characterizing the overall large-scale structure of the cosmos. Observers are simply asked to view an image and note the structure of a given galaxy after a brief series of questions. What has been really remarkable about Galaxy Zoo is the unforeseen directions the users have taken the original program. A key example is the discovery of a reflection nebula by Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (meaning “Object” in Dutch).  Another surreptitious discovery has been a new class of galaxies called “Green Peas” due to their appearance. Such discoveries highlight a modern truth about technology; you never know what places users will take it once it has been released into the wild.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.