A team of astronomers used a Yahoo! search to find images of Comet Homes, then combined them to determine the comet's orbit in three dimensions, proving data provided by an large but unwitting group of participants can advance scientific knowledge.
"I think it's the beginning of something really, really important," Harvard University's Alyssa Goodman said of the study. "The biggest deal is the availability of all this data that isn't being collected for the purpose it was used."
Dustin Lang at Princeton University initiated the study to harness the power of picture-posting astro-observers.
He used an online computer program called Astrometry.net that sifted through the images and utilized objects in each image such as stars to determine where in the sky the image was taken, ScienceNews.org reported Monday.
Lang and coauthor David Hogg of New York University narrowed the results to 1,299 usable images, a collection of photos snapped in different locations, and used them to reconstructed the comet's orbit in three dimensions.
Their result came very close to the orbit determined by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., they said.