Citizen Scientists Search the Skies

Students Can Use New Online Tools to Participate in Space Research

by David Morel, age 15

A new website, Zooniverse, is encouraging people to take part in scientific research and discovery. This is a large-scale, online science project. At least 270,000 citizen volunteers have contributed to more than 58 million classifications of astronomical objects.

Zooniverse started with a project called Galaxy Zoo. This project is an interactive webpage that allows users to classify new galaxies. To date, users have contributed more than of 157 million classifications.

The citizen scientists of Galaxy Zoo have also discovered two new classes of astronomical objects: Hanny’s Voorwerp and “green peas.” Researchers believe that Hanny’s Voorwerp is a tidally disrupted galaxy illuminated by a Quasar burst from around 100,000 years ago. It is thought that “green peas” are a type of galaxy that appear in pictures as clusters of bright green spheres.

Galaxy Zoo demonstrates how individual student work contributes to scientific discovery. By engaging students in actual research, scientists hope to spark their interest in science careers.There are currently six Zooniverse projects including Galaxy Zoo: Moon Zoo, Solar Storm Watch, Understanding Cosmic Mergers, The Hunt for Supernova, and Hubble.

Moon Zoo studies the moon in extraordinary detail. Solar Storm Watch seeks to aid in the identification of coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs are billion-ton clouds of plasma. Their magnetic fields can warn astronauts of potentially dangerous radiation.

Understanding Cosmic Mergers is a project that examines the role of gravitational force among different galaxies. The Hunt for Supernova identifies supernovae, or exploding stars. Lastly, Hubble aims to discover how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape.

The Zooniverse project goal is to encourage public interest in science and link human observations with artificial computing techniques to classify data.

Citizen scientists are pivotal to the development of new scientific research. Their sheer numbers and computing enthusiasm provide an invaluable resource in the quest for scientific discovery.

[Sources: National Science Foundation; Zooniverse]