Explore outer space at home with these 6 citizen science projects

From studying light pollution to growing tomato seeds that have flown in orbit, these citizen science projects can help you and your kids enjoy the cosmos at home.
By | Published: November 2, 2020 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
M51 Whirpool Galaxy
The M51 Whirpool Galaxy
NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith/STScI and the Hubble Heritage Team/STScI/AURA
As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, it’s prime stargazing time. To celebrate, we’re featuring citizen science projects ideal for the astronomically-inclined, both those who love going out into the cool night air and those who prefer exploring from the comfort of their easy chairs. Either way, the cosmos await!
Planet Nine Backyard worlds
This artist’s concept shows the hypothetical super-Earth known as Planet Nine or Planet X, which some researchers think lurks far beyond Pluto in the outer reaches of the solar system.
R. Hurt/IPAC/Caltech

Backyard Worlds: Planet Nine

What mysteries await in the outer reaches of our solar system, beyond Neptune? Undiscovered planets? Dwarf stars? Swarms of lost socks? Scientists need your help to find out! You’ll run your eyeballs over telescope images to spot potential new discoveries.

Take Part: Join NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet Nine

starlink satellites streak
Telescopes at Lowell Observatory in Arizona captured this image of galaxies on May 25, their images marred by the reflected light from more than 25 Starlink satellites as they passed overhead.
Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

Satellite Streak Watcher

You and your cell phone can help NASA scientists by photographing the paths of satellites in Earth orbit. These spacecraft are accumulating and cluttering things up for scientists trying to see into space. Your contributions will help them track this growing problem.

Take Part: Join NASA’s Satellite Streak Watcher

tomato seeds in space
The Tomatosphere project sends seeds to orbit and returns them for kids to grow back on Earth.

Onward Into the Tomatosphere!

If you take some tomato seeds, expose them to the conditions of outer space, and then plant them, what will happen? With Tomatosphere, it’s your job to find out! The project staff provides the treated seeds, and you grow them, make observations and collect data. Tomatosphere is available to students in grades 3 through 10 in the US and Canada.

Take Part: Join the Tomatosphere Project

asteroid NASA
Help NASA plan for future spacecraft missions to asteroids by identifying and categorizing asteroids.
Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock

Target Asteroids!

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made news recently by visiting asteroid Bennu. Now they’re looking for more asteroid travel destinations and, if you have an 8″ or larger telescope and a CCD camera, you can help. There are over a million asteroids with a diameter of more than half a mile (1 kilometer), and by joining Target Asteroids!, you’ll check them out and help NASA plan future missions.

Take Part: Join NASA’s Target Asteroids! Project

Spiral graph
Spiral Graph asks users to trace out the shape of a spiral galaxy’s arms, helping give astronomers a potential proxy for studying a number of other properties. That may include things like a supermassive black hole’s size and the overall mass of a galaxy’s dark matter and stars.
Spiral Graph/NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Spiral Graph

Even if you can barely identify the Big Dipper, your amazing human brain can ID properties of galaxies that baffle even the most powerful computers. That’s why the Spiral Graph Project needs your help. You’ll measure how tightly wrapped spiral arms are in galaxies and identify interesting candidates for future, detailed telescope observations.

Take Part: Join the Spiral Graph Project

America light pollution
The Globe at Night project invites citizen scientists to record light pollution in their own community.

Globe at Night

If you can go outside at night and look up, you have what it takes to participate in Globe at Night, a project that’s monitoring light pollution. Your job is to compare the stars you can see in various constellations to star charts provided by Globe at Night. Send that info, plus your location, and the Globe at Night researchers will compare what you saw with what you should be able to see.

Take Part: Join the Globe at Night Project

You can find more citizen science projects at SciStarter.org.

Citizen Science Salon is a partnership between Discover and SciStarter.org.