Computers beat brainpower when it comes to counting stars

Apr 16, 2014
Computers beat brainpower when it comes to counting stars

A team of University of Sydney astronomers has developed a new way to automatically classify huge numbers of astronomical objects, and to discover new, exotic ones almost as soon as they happen.

Massive torrents of are now collected by telescopes on a daily basis creating an urgent need to massively accelerate the reliable classification of millions of , and to quickly highlight objects that might be or that have unusual properties.

"Next generation telescopes like the Square Kilometre Array will produce enough raw data to fill up 15 million iPods every day," said Kitty Lo, lead author of the research just published in The Astrophysical Journal.

"It will be too much for humans to sift through, and this is where computer classification comes in," said Ms. Lo.

Ms. Lo completed the research as part of her PhD thesis at the ARC Center of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) at the University of Sydney.

"We were particularly interested in finding objects that suddenly appear and then disappear," said co-author Dr. Tara Murphy, from the University's School of Physics.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Video of Kitty Lo explaining her work

These transient sources can represent entirely new phenomena, but can easily get buried in the many thousands of gigabytes of data generated by modern observatories. Astronomers need to find them as soon as they happen, so they can be studied with other telescopes before they fade away.

"Using a catalogue of known objects with existing classifications, we trained our software to recognize the flaring and bursting patterns of more than 800 objects, and to sort them into classes such as black holes, binary stars and supernova explosions," said Dr. Murphy.

The researchers then put their software to the test, confronting it with 400 new objects that needed to be identified and classified.

"Computer classification tends to be much better than humans at finding subtle patterns in data sets, especially if there are many similar categories," said Ms. Lo.

"Our software performed extremely well and matched the manual analysis in almost all cases. And crucially, it was much faster than any human ever could be."

Not only did their software catalogue stars and galaxies extremely accurately and efficiently, it also singled out a number of strange objects that could not be classified and which could hold the key to new discoveries.

Detailed study of unusual objects will still remain the task of the human researcher. However, automatic classification can now let astronomers find exciting events as they happen.

Explore further: 44 million stars and counting: Astronomers play Snap and remap the sky

More information: Paper: Kitty K. Lo, Sean Farrell, Tara Murphy, Bryan M. Gaensler "Automatic classification of time-variable X-ray sources", published in the Astrophysical Journal 786 dx.doi.org/10.1088/0004-637X/786/1/20

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Image: Magnifying the distant universe

Apr 01, 2014

(Phys.org) —Galaxy clusters are some of the most massive structures that can be found in the Universe—large groups of galaxies bound together by gravity. This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope ...

GOSSS catalogue clears the way for study of massive stars

Mar 06, 2014

Only one in two million stars in our galactic environment is of type O, a category that includes stars with anywhere between sixteen and more than one hundred solar masses, and luminosities millions of times greater than ...

Simple, like a neutron star

Mar 25, 2014

For astrophysicists neutron stars are extremely complex astronomical objects. Research conducted with the collaboration of SISSA and published in the journal Physical Review Letters demonstrates that in cer ...

Recommended for you

Staying warm: The hot gas in clusters of galaxies

18 hours ago

Most galaxies lie in clusters, groupings of a few to many thousands of galaxies. Our Milky Way galaxy itself is a member of the "Local Group," a band of about fifty galaxies whose other large member is the ...

A colorful gathering of middle-aged stars

Nov 26, 2014

NGC 3532 is a bright open cluster located some 1300 light-years away in the constellation of Carina(The Keel of the ship Argo). It is informally known as the Wishing Well Cluster, as it resembles scattered ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.