Most of you have probably seen volunteer distributed computing projects like Einstein@Home or SETI@Home which use the time your home computer is idle to process data looking for gravitational waves or extra-terrestrial life, respectively. These are both ways to get additional computing resources for projects that can use all the computing power they can get, and outreach activities that help people contribute to state-of-the-art science. In that spirit, a collaboration including Yale, Oxford, and the Alder Planetarium is using NASA's Kepler mission to ask for even more interactive help from anyone with an Internet connection, a set of eyes, and some spare time. The project is called PlanetHunters.org and this is how it works:
After a very brief registration, you can look at actual data from one of the roughly 150,000 stars Kepler monitors and start trying to visually identify transits. Of course the Kepler science team is also running this data through very sophisticated pattern recognition software to try to identify transits in an automated fashion, but in some ways the human brain is still a better pattern recognition system than even the best computer algorithm. The only way human eyes can look at years of data from 150,000 stars is if you have a lot of eyeballs, so enlisting the general public seems like a very good idea.
UPDATE: I beat the New York Times on this one. They have an excellent article about distributed science projects via the web that you can read here.