I was one of the early adopters of SETI@Home – the pioneering distributed computing project that uses a volunteer’s spare computing capacity to crunch data from Arecibo in the hope of finding extraterrestrial signals. I donated my spare CPU cycles as long ago as 1999.
SETI@Home has been hugely influential, of course, but at heart it’s a passive activity. The same comment applies to many of the projects it spawned, such as Einstein@Home. These are all valuable endeavours, but they don’t require much from a volunteer except that donation of computing power.
The newer “citizen science” projects exemplified by Zooniverse require active involvement from volunteers: these projects succeed, and they produce real scientific results, because the human brain is still better than a computer program at pattern-recognition tasks. Zooniverse contains one project that is clearly of interest to astrobiology: planethunters.org gets volunteers to search for explanets using lightcurve data from Kepler. And other projects in the Zooniverse stable might well turn up some serendipitous discoveries: who knows, for example, what people might see when they look through the hundreds of thousands of images in Galaxy Zoo?
But the prime focus of these projects is not astrobiology. Are there any potential “citizen science” projects directly relating to astrobiology? Not just the passive donation of spare CPU cycles in a search for extraterrestrial signals, but the active involvement of hundreds of thousands of human brains on astrobiological problems. Does anyone have any ideas what such a research program would look like?