Astronomy is a rare field in which everyday folks can still make a pretty big impact. Consider this recent study showing that crowd-sourced crater mapping can be just as effective and accurate as when the professionals do it, at a fraction of the cost and time! A fraction of the cost doesn't mean zero, sadly. Even if the mappers themselves aren't getting paid, money must be spent paying the engineers who develop the platform and renting the servers it runs on. In an era of diminishing grant money, CosmoQuest is hoping to crowd-source its funding, too!
For what amounts to a $2 donation to the cause of citizen science, their new app Earth or Not Earth lets you try your hand at identifying the surfaces of bodies in the solar system in a series of increasingly-difficult puzzles. Let's take a look at what you get...
After downloading from the App Store (an Android version is available as well) on my iPad Air and iPhone 5, Earth or Not Earth immediately connected to the CosmoQuest (I presume) servers to download a set of 50 space images I'd be matching during the game. This process took about a minute, but is a one-time setup. Unless, of course, you'd like to add more images to expand the challenge! After these images were downloaded, I was taken to the main menu, which presented me with three game modes.
Earth or Not Earth
The game's self titled first mode is the easiest of the bunch. As you might expect, I was shown a series of images and asked to identify them as Earth or not Earth. Every answer, right or wrong, offered me the opportunity to learn more about the terrain type I was identifying through a well-written paragraph describing the feature. The images were presented in black and white, as color would make picking out Earth pretty obvious, but there was still not much challenge in this mode. We've all been looking at Earth for our entire lives, so identifying terrestrial-looking features wasn't too hard.
The second, and best, mode is called Matching. It presented me with an image of a surface feature and four choices as to what or where the phenomenon might be. I had to discern river canyons from lava flows, for example or determine whether a outflow channel appeared to be on Earth or Io or Titan. Once again, each answer provided me with an explanation of what I was looking at and a color version of the image, if available.
The final mode was definitely the trickiest. This time I was presented with a 3x4 grid of images and asked to match pairs of images of the same world. Below a certain quality threshold, though, a crater pretty much just looks like a crater. Especially on the iPhone's smaller screen, I found it challenging to distinguish the images. Pick Two is also a timed mode, rewarding me with points for making all the matches quickly while deducting points for every wrong answer. I have still yet to receive a positive score!
Performance and final comments
Earth or Not Earth performed predictably well on my modern devices, and I'd expect it to perform equally well even on older models. In addition to the three game modes, the app allows you to page through the various information sections at your leisure. A quick perusal before trying out the Matching or Pick Two modes might have greatly improved my performance! Facebook sharing options offered me the chance to let my friends know all the slick stuff I was learning.
If this were a game produced by any traditional game company, I'd say it wasn't worth your two bucks, but when viewed as a donation to a very worthy cause, the picture brightens. I definitely learned some interesting stuff whilst playing and, especially on the iPad, got to look at some really pretty space images. All that, and I contributed to the advancement of science. Not bad for buying an app...
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this app at no charge from CosmoQuest. CosmoQuest did not receive an advance copy of this review nor have any editorial control. CosmoQuest owns the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, which syndicates the Monthly News Roundup.