Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Help professional astronomers do research

Galaxy Zoo Logo
Image Credit: Galaxy Zoo

Lots of people have mentioned to me how they wish they could do astronomy, and look at pretty pictures all day. Readers of this blog know that pretty pictures occupy an unfortunately small amount of my professional time; I'm more likely to be filling out paperwork or deleting the 35th version of a university-wide email reminding me that some small street will be closed for a half hour three weeks from now when a new load of rattan is delivered to the Department of Underwater Basket Weaving.

In recent years, many scientists have started to realize how we can make use of the interest that the public shows in our work. In 1999, scientists at UC Berkeley launched SETI@home, a project that uses home computers when they are sitting idle to analyze radio data and look for extraterrestrial radio signals. The program was so popular that many other projects launched making use of distributed computing power, including a current effort that uses Playstation 3 units to study protein folding.

The concepts of "citizen science" include much more than just distributed computing. Ongoing projects include searches for extrasolar planets, hunts for tiny interstellar dust particles, and, of course, one of the oldest ongoing astronomy programs, the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Each of these projects would not be possible without innumerable volunteers who just want to do a little astronomy research.

In 2007, a project called the Galaxy Zoo started. The program was pretty simple: volunteers would be shown a picture of a random galaxy observed in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and they would classify it as a spiral galaxy or an elliptical galaxy. Over a million galaxies were included in the catalog, and it was hoped that the project would be completed in a couple of years. Galaxy Zoo was so popular, those galaxies were looked at 50 times over (i.e., 50 million classifications!) in just one year. (Read more about the history here.) Computers can't do the work well, and there are too many galaxies for just a few astronomers, but the community of volunteers made short work of the task!

In fact, Galaxy Zoo was so popular, it's back as a sequel: Galaxy Zoo 2. This time, instead of just deciding if a galaxy is a spiral or an elliptical, there are multiple questions for each galaxy; this allows the galaxy to be described more completely, which allows even more science to be done. It also means that, if you want to volunteer to help, you'll have the opportunity to study lots of pretty pictures of galaxies all day long, all while helping professional astronomers do some real scientific research.

If it sounds like fun, go to the Galaxy Zoo homepage, read about its history and how you can help, and then dig right in! Even if you only have a few minutes once in a while, that's okay! Every little contribution helps.

And, who knows, you might even discover something new and unexpected! It happened in the first Galaxy Zoo, so there's every reason to think it can happen again.

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