Andromeda Project Wants Your Help Searching For Star Clusters
December 5, 2012

Citizen Scientists Called On For Help With Hubble Andromeda Project

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new project, named The Andromeda Project, is asking the public's help to search through Hubble Space Telescope images to identify star clusters and increase our understanding of how galaxies evolve.

The new project is a collaboration between scientists at the University of Washington, the University of Utah and other partners, aiming to study thousands of high-resolution Hubble images.

“It´s an amazing opportunity to discover something new,” said Julianne Dalcanton, UW astronomy professor. “Anyone can look at these beautiful Hubble images and participate in the scientific process. And it´s a huge help to us.”

Volunteers can start taking a tutorial on the project's website, and the researchers say no astronomy experience is needed. Cliff Johnson, a UW graduate student and project co-organizer, said the site is easy to use.

“We hope people will feel like they are playing an online game, but one that helps astronomers with research," Johnson said.

The astronomer team is asking for the public's help due to the huge volume of data. There could be as many as 2,500 star clusters hidden in Hubble's Andromeda image, but only 600 have been identified so far, and the clusters tend to elude pattern-recognition software.

The researchers have determined the hunt for the star clusters is something the average citizen can do without extensive training.

Star clusters are groups of stars that are born together from the same cloud of gas. Scientists can use their age and composition to help better understand the evolution of galaxies.

“We have a good sense of how stars, once born, evolve,” said Anil Seth, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Utah. “But we don´t really know the details of how galaxies form and how stars form within those galaxies. Andromeda is the best place to study these processes.”

Andromeda, or Messier 31, is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, but is 2.5 million light years from the Earth.

Over 10,000 images will be sifted through by citizen astronomers in the program, which is known as the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury.

The goal of the survey is to map about one-third of Andromeda's star-forming disk, through six filters spread across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Hubble began gathering images in 2010, and it is expected to send off its last batch back to Earth next summer.

“I´d love for this project to create the definitive data set for understanding how clusters form and how stars evolve,” Dalcanton concluded. “To think that anyone with a web browser can participate in building this legacy is tremendously exciting.”