A new study says volunteer efforts to map the lunar surface had results that were similar to professional astronomers with up to 50 years of experience. The crowd-sourced mapping mission indicates the effectiveness of citizen scientists and could lead to new planetary science projects that would allow public participation.

Stuart Robbins of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder led the study and partnered with CosmoQuest’s MoonMappers research project. CosmoQuest is a volunteer-based project that has citizen scientists identifying craters on the moon as well as Mercury and asteroid Vesta, notes CU-Boulder.

CosmoQuest MoonMappers volunteers analyzed high-resolution images captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and counted the number of craters that were 18 pixels or larger, the equivalent of 35 feet (11 meters) in diameter. The area covered by the images measured 1.4 square miles and the study compared the total number of craters found by eight professional crater counters with the average of thousands of volunteers that made up the MoonMappers project.

Counting craters is a lot harder than it looks, as the total number of craters identified would vary as much as 100 percent, person to person. When the average total of craters found in the images was compared, volunteers and experts found roughly the same amount.

MoonMappers Comparison of craters identified by experts and volunteers. The different colors indicate individual identification while a white circle indicates crater identification by an algorithm. For the four isolated craters, (N) indicates the number of people that identified the crater. Photo: Robbins/CosmoQuest

With the same accuracy between experts and volunteers, Robbins says this study could lead to new volunteer-based efforts in mapping craters or other planetary science projects. Lunar impact craters are important as they provide a history of cosmic bombardment, the researchers liken this period to a game of pinball, with planets, moons, asteroids and comets hitting one another during the early stages of the formation of our solar system. Impact craters on the lunar surface have been preserved as Earth's satellite does not have tectonic plates or volcanic activity that would eliminate some of these features.

Robbins said in a statement, “Without this first step of verifying the accuracy of volunteer crater counters, there would be no point in continuing the project. Our study results mean we can now use the power of crowd-sourcing to gather more data than we ever thought possible before.” Robbins estimates there are more than 500 million craters on the moon that are at least 35 feet in diameter or larger.

For Robbins, he hopes the study paves the way for citizen-scientist mapping efforts for Mars and Mercury, which would free up time for scientists while creating more public awareness and engagement. Pamela Gay, from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and the founder of CosmoQuest, said volunteers could be a boon to research efforts as budgets for such projects shrink.

Even better, volunteers can count craters anywhere, whether at home or during one's daily commute. CosmoQuest has several tutorials and guides for those looking to get involved. Volunteers can sign up to find craters on the moon, Mercury and asteroid Vesta. Most recently, the team at CosmoQuest began looking at three terabytes of data about Mercury collected by NASA's Messenger spacecraft. The research was published in the journal Icarus

Videos detailing the MoonMappers project and the crater-counting study can be viewed below.