Volunteers Aid Astronomers In Mapping, Classifying Galaxies
September 11, 2012

Volunteers Aid Astronomers In Mapping, Classifying Galaxies

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The heavens above are littered with trillions and trillions of stars packed into hundreds of  billions of galaxies that are being painstakingly mapped out by astronomers. The Galaxy Zoo project also incorporates the help of volunteers to map, and classify, the galaxies that have been found via the hundreds of thousands of telescope images.

While most of these galaxies take on the classic spiral or elliptical shape, some have taken on more intricate patterns, resembling letters of the alphabet. The international team behind the project, including astronomers from Oxford University, are inviting people to be involved in the work at galaxyzoo.org.

To date, the site includes more than a quarter-million new images of galaxies, many of which have never been seen by humans. By classifying these galaxies, volunteers will add to science´s understanding of the processes that shaped the universe.

“Humans are better than computers at pattern recognition tasks like this, and we couldn't have got so far without everyone's help,” said Galaxy Zoo principal investigator Dr Chris Lintott from the University of Oxford. “Now we've got a new challenge and we'd like to encourage volunteers old and new to get involved. You don't have to be an expert — in fact we've found not being an expert tends to make you better at this task. There are too many images for us to inspect ourselves, but by asking hundreds of thousands of people to help us we can find out what's lurking in the data.”

Since the project´s launch in 2007, more than 250,000 people have become involved, making it one of the largest projects ever. So far, more than a million images have been sorted through and categorized. Findings have ranged from typical to exciting to weird and wonderful.

Among the weirdest finds are the galaxies that appear alphabetic. In fact, the project has amassed an entire alphabet of galaxies. Also among the discoveries are oddly animal-shaped galaxies, including one that is penguin-like.

Researchers suggest such unusual formations may be telltale signs of collisions between galaxies.

The images on galaxyzoo.org come from the New Mexico ground-based telescope Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and from NASA´s space-based Hubble Space Telescope.

“The two sources of data work together perfectly: the new images from Sloan give us our most detailed view of the local universe, while the CANDELS survey from the Hubble telescope allows us to look deeper into the universe's past than ever before,” said Kevin Schawinski, astronomer and Galaxy Zoo team member from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

The project leaders are hoping the hard work by volunteers will allow data from the two telescopes to be compared, offering insight into how galaxies, as we see them today, may have arisen from how the universe looked in the past.

“In astronomy, we're lucky enough to get to see both the past and the present of the universe. By comparing the two, we can try to understand the forces which have shaped the formation of the galaxies in it, including our own Milky Way,” said Dr Karen Masters from the University of Portsmouth, another team member.

The Galaxy Zoo Project is a ℠citizen science´ project operated through an international collaboration of institutions including Oxford, Nottingham and Portsmouth Universities, ETH Zurich, John Hopkins University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Alabama and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

The Galaxy Zoo project is part of the larger Zooniverse.org network of projects which has engaged more than half a million volunteers in the discovery of planets, transcriptions of ship logs and ancient texts, and even listening to whale song, all in the name of science.

Dr Steven Bamford, of the University of Nottingham, and also a Galaxy Zoo project member, has created the Mygalaxies.co.uk website where anyone can write their name in the stars.