Astronomers Asking Volunteers To Help Find 'Space Warps'
May 8, 2013

Astronomers Asking Volunteers To Help Find ‘Space Warps’

[WATCH VIDEO: Space Warps Gravitational Lensing Animation]

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Volunteers are being summoned to help astronomers find "space warps," leading to the discovery of faraway objects.

Space warps, more commonly known as "gravitational lenses," allow objects in space to act as a giant lens to other objects even farther away. Studies have found that the human brain is much better at identifying lenses than current computer algorithms, so astronomers are asking volunteers to participate in the Space Warps project.

The project asks anyone to participate by spotting these rare objects using data from large astronomical surveys. Astronomers can use gravitational lensing to explore a variety of mysteries about the universe.

“Not only do space warps act like lenses, magnifying the distant galaxies behind them, but also the light they distort can be used to weigh them, helping us to figure out how much dark matter they contain and how it´s distributed,” Dr. Phil Marshall, co-leader of the project at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

The Space Warps project said the first set of images to be sifted through is from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) legacy survey.

“We have scanned the images with computer algorithms, but there are likely to be many more space warps that the algorithms have missed. Realistically simulated space warps are dropped into some images to train volunteers to spot them and reassure people that they are on the right track,” said Dr. Anupreeta More, co-leader of the project at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), the University of Tokyo.

The team said the project is a collaboration between humans and computers, and data from the human volunteers will help train computers to become better space-warp spotters.

“Even if individual visitors only spend a few minutes glancing over 40 or so images each, that´s really helpful to our research – we only need a handful of people to spot something in an image for us to say that it´s worth investigating,” said Dr. Aprajita Verma, another co-leader from the University of Oxford.

This isn't the first time the scientific community has asked the public's help in looking for space objects. In December last year, scientists at several universities launched The Andromeda Project in an attempt to have volunteers help identify star clusters in Hubble Space Telescope images. Astronomers believe there could be as many as 2,500 star clusters hidden in Hubble's Andromeda image, but only 600 have been identified so far.