November 25, 2009

Galaxy Game Employs Participants To Help Astronomers

Astronomers on behalf of Galaxy Zoo have unveiled a new game aimed at letting players help them understand how galaxies have formed.

The game involves images taken by a camera attached to a telescope in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Game participants are asked to match simulations of colliding galaxies, called galactic mergers.

Astronomers say the human brain is much more reliable than even the fastest computer at classifying the shapes of colliding galaxies.

The project is led by scientists from Oxford University in the UK and George Mason University.

"Visitors to the Galaxy Zoo Mergers site use what's rather like a giant slot machine, with a real image of a galactic merger in the center and eight randomly selected simulated merger images filling the other eight 'slots' around it," said John Wallin, associate professor of computational and data sciences at George Mason University.

"By randomly cycling through the millions of simulated possibilities and selecting only the very best matches, our visitors are helping to build up a profile of what kind of factors are necessary to create the galaxies we see in the universe around us. And, hopefully, they are having fun, too!"

"These volunteers that participate are not just users," said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, the project lead for the Galaxy Zoo project. "They're doing science. They're doing the analysis we don't have time for, because there could never be enough professional astronomers to do the job properly."

The project will feature about 3,000 images of galactic mergers.

"These collisions take millions of years to unfold, and so all we get from the universe is a single snapshot of each one. By producing simulations, we will be able to watch each cosmic car crash unfold in the computer," said Wallin. "By reconstruct these collisions, our users will help us understand how galaxies have changed over the history of the universe."


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