Citizen scientists making incredible discoveries

Citizen scientists making incredible discoveries
In this image, the Voorwerp floats near a spiral galaxy. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," wrote Carl Sagan.

And now you can be the one to find it, thanks to Zooniverse, a unique website. Zooniverse volunteers, who call themselves "Zooites," are working on a project called , classifying distant galaxies imaged by NASA's .

"Not only are people better than computers at detecting the subtleties that differentiate galaxies, they can do things computers can't do, like spot things that just look interesting," explains Zooniverse director Chris Lintott, an at the University of Oxford.

Zooite Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher, discovered this strange green object floating in her cosmic soup.

When van Arkel noticed this unusual greenish object and posted an image of it on the Galaxy Zoo forum, not even the experts knew what it was. They named it "Voorwerp," Dutch for "object."

Another group of Zooites found green "peas" in theirs, and dubbed themselves the "Peas-Corp."

Citizen scientists making incredible discoveries
These "green peas" are actually galaxies. Credit: Carolin Cardamone and Sloan Digital Sky Survey

The peas turned out to be small, round green galaxies about a tenth the size of the . These are now believed to be the most efficient star factories in the universe, forming huge numbers of stars in a hurry. "It was easy to find 'peas' by computer once we knew they were there, but without the human factor we'd never have noticed them," says Lintott.

Lintott started Zooniverse in 2007 to solve a very large and unique problem: "I had too many galaxies on my hands," he explains.

Lintott was faced with classifying, by shape, one million galaxies imaged by the Sloan . First he did what any self-respecting scientist would do.
"I asked a graduate student to classify them."

The student was good at it, but after he catalogued 50,000 images, it was obvious he needed help – a lot of help -- sorting the other 950,000. The solution came to Lintott and the very relieved student while they were sitting in a pub.

"Why not ask for volunteers?"

Zooniverse and its first project, Galaxy Zoo, were born.

"We were blown away by the response. We had so many hits that our web server crashed on the first morning!"

They quickly solved the server problem and the project took off. With the Hubble Space Telescope, Galaxy Zoo is taking volunteers deeper into the cosmos than ever before. And the Zooniverse team has proven that the Zooites' classifications are as good as those by professional astronomers.

"Their contributions are extremely important," says Lintott. "They're helping us learn how galaxies form and evolve. And they take their work seriously."

But that doesn't prevent them from bringing a sense of adventure and just sheer fun to the research.

"Not long ago some Zooites asked us to take them on a pilgrimage to Zooniverse's birthplace. There was quite a celebration at the pub that night!"

After Galaxy Zoo kicked off, scientists began approaching Lintott at conferences asking for help. "They realized that we'd found a great way to sort a lot of data fast."

Zooniverse now offers several citizen science projects, including three more using NASA data. Moon Zoo volunteers use data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to count craters, helping write the history of the moon. Milky Way project participants scour infrared images gathered in two Spitzer Space Telescope surveys of the Milky Way's inner regions. They help astronomers catalogue intriguing features, map our galaxy, and plan future research. Zooniverse's Planet Hunters are helping NASA's Kepler telescope find stars likely to host planets.

"I'd love to confirm one of their finds and be able to send an email to someone saying, 'You've found a planet!' "

Now, please excuse this writer. She has planet hunting to do.

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Apr 26, 2011
I love Zooniverse! I've been participating on planethunters dot org, helping Kepler find exoplanets. The feeling is indescribably awing to actually participate (albeit in an infinitely small way) in such an exciting field of science.

Shameless plug, I've written about how amazingly cool and remarkable the Kepler mission is here:

A Plethora of Planets: http://www.isthis...planets/

I'm going to take a break from my exoplanet safari, and head over to the zooniverse to start classifying members of the Galaxy Zoo now.

Apr 26, 2011
I'd love to do this but it seems like I have no time at all to spare. The solution is to upgrade the speed of my brain, maybe one day.

Kepler is incredible. It has blown away the expectations I had for the mission before its launch, we now KNOW that habitable zone exoplanets are everywhere. I rank that finding up there with the discovery of heliocentrism and red-shift.

We're alive to see it.

Apr 26, 2011
@Beard I couldn't agree more. I can't really overstate my excitement to be able to watch the discoveries unfold, let alone to actually be able to take (a teeny, tiny) part in it!

As I tried to capture what I feel:
"On the forefront of discovery, indeed even able to participate in the science itself, we are all living in a wondrous age of breakthrough, a renaissance of our knowledge of the universe, a time when the history of science is occurring before our eyes, the future textbooks recording a second chapter under the name Kepler, a chapter in which the dates are familiar and colourful to us, filled with the richness of our own lives, the period destined to become lore, to be dreamt of by our children's children."

There will be an epochal moment in human history when extra-solar life is discovered. This will likely be shortly followed by an even greater epochal moment when an extra-solar civilization is discovered.

Apr 27, 2011
I read your article a few weeks ago and I agree with you completely. We were born into a transformative era of personal empowerment, knowledge and discovery. I also believe it will continue to accelerate into an uncertain but profoundly exciting future.

What are your thoughts on the significance of the James Webb Telescope in regards to those epochal discoveries?

Apr 27, 2011
@Beard, check out this PDF from NASA: http://planetques...mpin.pdf

It looks like JWST will be able to 'sniff' out the spectroscopy of transiting exoplanets (gas giants better than smaller), and *that* is exciting. Detecting Oxygen in quantity in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would be *very* interesting. O2 isn't all that stable, it reacts with almost anything, and not too many things can generate O2 other than life.

If we find evidence of O2 in the atmosphere of an Earth-like rocky world, that will change things dramatically.

Of course the huge problem with the JWST is that there will be only one of them! And with so many planets out there, it may take a while to get mission time to observe enough exoplanets to detect that O2.

I suppose it all depends on the next multiplier in Drake's equation, how many planets which can support life (we now think this number is huge!) do support life?

Exciting times to say the least!

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