During the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory launched Project Moonwatch. This amazing citizen science project had a network of observers around the world tracking the first artificial satellites. The data collected proved vital in discovering some satellites and tracking the fate of others. The history of the project is quite fascinating and described in detail in Keep Watching the Skies.

This evening, I was chatting with Mike Peel. Our conversation covered all sorts of ideas from open science to 3D tracking of meteors. By the end of the conversation we came up with the idea of a mass participation Twitter project named SkyWatch, inspired by Project Moonwatch as well as the UKSnow & MeteorWatch hashtags on Twitter. The aim would be to track and identify objects moving in the sky.

Following the examples of Ben Marsh and Tomas Vorobjov, the data could be collected and displayed on a map in real time, along with the images posted to Twitpic or Yfrog. For objects such as the ISS or satellites, it would be possible to watch their path develop and spot when they were heading in your direction. It might be possible to track meteors/fireballs and even identify where a meteorite may have hit theground. This sort of service, if used widely by the public, would also pick up Chinese lanterns and other IFO/UFOs!

UK Snow
A screenshot of Ben Marsh's UKsnow map in action CREDIT: Ben Marsh

To get as many people to take part as possible, it needs to be easy for people to join in. That means less precise input but, as UKSnow and Galaxy Zoo have demonstrated, sometimes large numbers of imprecise observations can give a pretty good answer when combined. Like UKSnow, the idea would be to encourage short tweets with a limited amount of simple information. Mike and I think these should contain a location, direction, brightness and a guess as to what it might be. An example tweet might be:

#skywatch Manchester N 4/10 Satellite?

In these tweets it would be nice to allow the user's location to be provided in as free a format as possible, e.g. postcode or city, and work out where this is (latitude/longitude) using a geo-location lookup service of some kind. The direction would be given as a simple compass direction and the service would recognise values such as N, East, South-west, NNW etc. The brightness will, necessarily, be subjective but could have some guidance such as 10/10 being as bright as the Sun, 5/10 being brighter than the stars that are visible, and 1/10 being on the edge of visibility. It would also allow people to suggest what the object might be e.g. satellite, meteor, plane, ISS, UFO etc.

One of the biggest problems might be the delay between an observation and a tweet. It may be possible to correct for this statistically but some level of uncertainty will remain in the timing (probably to no better than the nearest 30 seconds). One optional addition might be to allow people to say how long ago their observation was but then things start to be more complicated and it may be more trouble than it's worth.

Do you, dear reader, think there is merit to this idea? Do you have suggestions for ways to improve it? If you do, or have the ability to help get this up and running, please post in the comments below.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 22nd Jan 2010 (22:16 GMT) | Permalink
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