Adler Planetarium is calling on citizen scientists to help discover thousands of new “baby galaxies” in the distant universe, billions of light years from Earth.
The hunt is part of an initiative co-led by Adler and the University of Oxford called Zooniverse, which has enlisted the aid of more than a million people worldwide to identify new planets and assist professional researchers in making a range of scientific discoveries. Zooniverse launched 10 years ago and is celebrating the anniversary with its 100th project, Galaxy Nurseries.
Project volunteers will help the Zooniverse team by identifying features called emission lines in galaxy spectra captured by the Wide Field Camera 3 carried by the Hubble Space Telescope. The spectra are produced by decomposing the light that enters a telescope camera into many different colors, called wavelengths. This data allows scientists to find new galaxies and measure their distances from Earth.
Although it sounds complicated, volunteers of any age and experience level can help by sorting through a series of numbers to help researchers distinguish between galaxies and false positives identified by computer code.
“What makes Zooniverse particularly exciting is that our citizen scientists, 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds, are in the driver seat of discovery,” said Laura Trouille, director of Adler’s citizen science program, in a press release. “In our astronomy projects alone, Zooniverse volunteers have been the discoverers of the first planet in a four-star system, an exotic pulsar, dozens of gravitational lenses, over 1,000 new supernovae candidates, the rare, ghost remnants of supermassive black hole outflows and much more.”
Like human beings and other life forms, galaxies grow and evolve over time. But unlike humans, galactic evolution takes place at a much slower pace, on scales of millions to billions of years, which makes observing any meaningful change in an individual galaxy impossible on a human timescale.
But there is a workaround to the problem, and it involves light. Researchers have produced data based on observing galaxies in two ways: by taking direct images of galaxies, and by capturing images of galaxies’ light split into different colors (the galaxies’ spectra).
With help from citizen scientists analyzing the data, researchers can use the images to identify new galaxies while also measuring their distances based on the spectra wavelengths. Like with other Zooniverse projects, researchers would not be able to sift through all the data and discover new baby galaxies without the help of a large number of volunteers.
Since its launch in 2007, Zooniverse has enlisted 1.5 million registered users who have contributed to new discoveries and data sets that are useful to the wider research community. In 2013, Zooniverse received $1.8 million as a recipient of the Google Global Impact Award, which supports innovative approaches to tackling some of the toughest human challenges.
To help with Zooniverse's latest project or to learn more, visit the Zooniverse website.
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
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