Want to Help Astronomers? Become a Citizen Scientist!

comet halley
Comet Halley as seen in March 1986. Images like this were also taken by amateurs around the world. NASA International Halley Watch, by Bill Liller.

The world of science is one of careful measurements and analysis. There's so much scientific data available to scientists today across all disciplines that some of it had to wait for a scientist to get to it. In recent decades, the scientific community has been turning to citizen scientists to help them analyze it. In particular, the world's astronomers have a rich treasury of information and imaging available and are working with citizen volunteers and observers to help them sift through it all  In astronomy, not only are they working together on analysis, but in some projects, amateur observers are using their telescopes to observe objects of interest to professionals.

 

Welcome to Citizen Science

Citizen science brings people of all walks of life together to do important work in such diverse disciplines as astronomy, biology, zoology, and others. The degree of participation is really up to the volunteer who's interested in helping out. It also depends on the project's needs. For example, in the 1980s, amateur astronomers banded together with astronomers to do a massive imaging project focused on Comet Halley. For two years, these observers took pictures of the comet and forwarded them to a group at NASA for digitization. The resulting International Halley Watch showed astronomers that there were qualified amateurs out there, and luckily they had good telescopes. It also brought a whole new generation of citizen scientists into the limelight.

Nowadays there are various citizen science projects available, and in astronomy, they literally let anyone with a computer or a telescope (and some free time) explore the universe.

For astronomers, these projects get them access to amateur observers and their telescopes, or people with some computer savvy to help them work through mountains of data. And, for the participants, these projects give an exclusive look at some pretty fascinating objects. 

Opening the Floodgates of Science Data

Several years ago a group of astronomers opened up an endeavor called Galaxy Zoo to public access.

Today, it's called Zooniverse.org, an online portal where participants look at images of various subjects and help analyze them. For astronomers, it includes images taken by survey instruments such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is a massive imaging and spectrographic survey of the sky done by instruments in the northern and southern hemisphere.

The idea for the original Galaxy Zoo was to check out images of galaxies from surveys and help classify them. There are trillions of galaxies. In fact, the universe IS galaxies, out as far as we can detect. To understand how galaxies form and evolve over time, it's important to classify them by their galaxy shapes and types. This is what Galaxy Zoo and now Zooniverse asked its users to do: classify galaxy shapes.

Galaxies typically come in a number of shapes — astronomers refer to this as "galaxy morphology". Our own Milky Way Galaxy is a barred spiral, meaning it is spiral-shaped with a bar of stars, gas, and dust across its center. There are also spirals without bars, as well as elliptical (cigar-shaped) galaxies of varying types, spherical galaxies, and irregularly shaped ones. 

People can still classify galaxies on Zooniverse, as well as other objects and not just in science.

The system trains users in what to look for, no matter what the subject is, and after that, it's citizen science. 

A Zooniverse of Opportunity

Zooniverse today includes research areas on a wide array of topics in astronomy. It includes such sites as Radio Galaxy Zoo, where participants check out galaxies that emit large amounts of radio signals, Comet Hunters, where users scan images to spot comets, Sunspotter (for solar observers tracking sunspots), Planet Hunters (who search out worlds around other stars), Asteroid Zoo and others. Beyond astronomy, users can work on Penguin Watch, Orchid Observers, Wisconsin Wildlife Watch, Fossil Finder, Higgs Hunters, Floating Forests, Serengeti Watch, and projects in other disciplines. 

Citizen science has become a huge part of the scientific process, contributing to advances in many areas.

As it turns out, Zooniverse is just the tip of the iceberg! Other groups have also put together citizen science initiatives, including Cornell University.  All are easy to join, and participants will find that their time and attention really DO make a difference, both to scientists and as contributors to the world's general level of scientific knowledge and education.