Astronomers Need Your Help Looking For Space Anomalies
December 19, 2012

Astronomers Need Your Help Looking For Space Anomalies

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Astronomers are reaching out to the public and asking for a little help in a study to find holes in dust clouds that are threaded throughout our galaxy.

By looking at images from the Herschel Space Observatory, combined with those from NASA´s Spitzer satellite, members of the public can join the scientists by helping to distinguish between dense clumps of cold dust and possible holes in these dusty clouds.

Dust clouds do not come in simple shapes, so the process of distinguishing between dark clouds and holes is difficult to do.

Observations from the Spitzer satellite show dark regions in the middle of bright clouds of interstellar gas and dust. Scientists previously assumed these were dense clouds of much colder dust, which Spitzer is unable to see.

Herschel's far-infrared light allowed astronomers to see much colder dust than Spitzer. When looking at the images, these dark regions would glow brightly in Herschel's images, allowing the team to study them in greater detail. However, the team was surprised by what they found, or more accurately what they didn't find.

“We were surprised to find that some of these dark clouds were simply not there, appearing dark in Herschel´s images as well,” Professor Ward-Thompson, the Director of the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

“We immediately set about trying to find out how many of these were really there, and how many were holes in space,” he said.

He said the problem is that clouds of interstellar dust do not come in handy easy-to-recognize shapes. The images are too messy for computers to analyze, and there are too many for us to go through ourselves.

With the new images, Zooniverse, a community of citizen scientists, will help out in finding these holes. The images are part of the Milky Way Project, which has over 40,000 volunteers and has already created astronomy's largest catalogue of star-forming bubbles.

“What we´ve seen across all our projects is that the human brain can classify some images more quickly and reliably than computers can. We´re delighted to welcome Herschel into the Zooniverse," said Robert Simpson, the Zooniverse lead for the new project.

Göran Pilbratt, the ESA Herschel Project Scientist said that this is Herschel's first citizen scientist project. "It will be exciting to follow the progress in the coming months,” he added.