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Crowdsourced Science Could Discover Ancient Civilizations--And Maybe Even Aliens

Photo: Flickr user Lyn Gateley

What kid hasn’t at one time dreamt of becoming an archaeologist or an astronomer, hunting for relics that reveal the hidden histories of worlds distant in time and space?

Even if you’re a pencil pusher today, it’s not too late, according to two speakers at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver. Citizen science projects are making it possible for anyone to not only participate in these fields, but to actually make major discoveries that could change our understanding of how life evolved on Earth and beyond.

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist who is this year’s TED Prize winner. Her unique work involves analyzing satellite imagery with computers to hunt for hints of buried ancient civilizations, structures, or artifacts. In Egypt alone, she’s identified 17 potential new pyramid sites, as well as 1,000 tombs and 3,100 unknown settlements. But with the amount of imagery that exists, it’s impossible for her and a few professionals to analyze it all.

Sarah ParcakTED 2016

With the $1 million in funding that comes with the prize, Parcak is launching a citizen science site that will ask people from all over the world to help analyze satellite imagery, identifying structures they think could be significant as well as looking for signs of looting that could destroy treasured ancient history.

"I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites around the world by creating a 21st-century army of global explorers," Parcak said on stage at TED 2016. In addition to discovery, the project "will help create a new global alarm system to help protect sites."

If the project goes anything like Planet Hunters, another citizen science project from TED speaker and Yale University astrophysicist Tabetha Boyajian, then there will be a lot to unearth. In her talk, Boyajian described a recent mystery that has rocked the space world over the last few years.

Tabetha BoyajianTED 2016

Planet Hunters was a citizen science project set up at Yale to harness the power of the crowd to analyze data from NASA’s Kepler Space Mission, which was designed to look for new planets in our galaxy. The telescope measured the light levels from a field of stars over four years. Any tiny fluctuations in the light would indicate that a planet might be passing in its orbit in front of the star, blocking the light for a short while.

Computers totally missed a strange anomaly that the citizen scientists with Planet Hunters detected. In 2009, 2011, and again in 2013, a very large, and apparently asymmetrical object appeared to be blocking the light from star KIC 8462853, which is now known as Tabby’s star. The data shocked her—only a massive planet could produce such a big effect, and even that wouldn’t explain odd shape of the curve. They tried to come up with a natural explanation—comets, colliding planets, a very young star—but nothing quite fit. A colleague of hers, Jason Wright, noted they could not rule out a very large alien structure.

Boyajian and colleagues published a paper that made waves: "Where’s The Flux?" (or WTF). It spread word of the strange mystery, but it didn’t solve it. "Scientists are meant to publish results, and this situation was far from it," she says. "We’re in a situation that could unfold to be a natural phenomenon we don’t understand or an alien technology we don’t understand."

Today, amateur astronomers are still attempting to unravel the mystery, observing Tabby’s star from their backyards and gathering more data. Boyajian isn’t sure what will come out of it, but either way, the results will be significant: "What will it mean when we find another star like this? And what will it mean if we don’t find another star like this? "