Global Citizen Science Project Finds Over 1700 Asteroid Trails in Hubble Images

Combining artificial intelligence with many keen human eyes, astronomers have found 1701 new asteroid trails in archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, consisting of more than 37 000 images that span two decades. The project reflects both Hubble’s value to scientists as an asteroid hunter and how the public can effectively contribute to citizen science initiatives.

On International Asteroid Day in June 2019 an international group of astronomers launched the Hubble Asteroid Hunter, a citizen science project to identify asteroids in archival Hubble data. The initiative was developed by researchers and engineers at the European Science and Technology Centre (ESTEC) and the European Space Astronomy Centre’s Science Data Centre (ESDC), in collaboration with the Zooniverse platform, the world’s largest and most popular citizen science platform, and Google.

The astronomers collectively identified more than 37 000 composite images taken between April 2002 and March 2021 with Hubble’s ACS and WFC3 instruments. With a typical observation time of 30 minutes, asteroid trails appear as curved lines or streaks in these images. Over 11 400 members of the public classified and analysed these images. More than 1000 trails were identified, providing a training set for an automated algorithm based on artificial intelligence. The combination of citizen science and AI resulted in a final dataset containing 1701 trails in 1316 Hubble images. Project participants also tagged various other astronomical objects, such as gravitational lenses, galaxies and nebulae. Volunteers discussed their findings and sought assistance from scientists and other participants via the project’s forum.