Help Astronomers Classify Galaxies

hubble image of galaxy
Help astronomers figure out galaxy shapes with Galaxy Zoo!. NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/AURA)

Interested in doing science, but you're not scientifically trained? No problem!  You can still be a part of science discovery!

Welcome to Citizen Science

Have you heard of the term "citizen science"?  It's an activity that brings people of all walks of life together with scientists to do important work in such diverse disciplines as astronomy, biology, zoology, and others. The degree of participation is really up to you — and 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 you explore the universe. For astronomers, these projects get them access to amateur observers, 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. 

Galaxy Zoo Opens Its Gates to Visitors

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

It's an online portal where participants look at images of the sky taken by survey instruments such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's a massive imaging and spectrographic survey of the sky done by instruments in the northern and southern hemisphere. It has created the deepest, most detailed three-dimensional sky surveys, including the deepest look ever at about a third of the total sky.

 

As you look beyond our galaxy, you see many other 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 asks 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) galaxes of varying types, spherical galaxies, and irregularly shaped ones. 

When you sign up for Galazy Zoo, you go through an easy tutorial that teaches you the shapes of galaxies. Then, you start classifying, based on images the server dishes up to you. It's really quite easy. As you classify these shapes, you start to notice all kinds of interesting things about the galaxies, which you can also report to the Galaxy Zoo folks. 

A Zooniverse of Opportunity

Galaxy Zoo turned out to be such a boon for scientists and participants that other researchers wanted to join in. Today, Galaxy Zoo operates under an umbrella organization called Zooniverse, which 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.

If astronomy isn't your bag, the project has Penguin Watch, Orchid Observers, Wisconsin Wildlife Watch, Fossil Finder, Higgs Hunters, Floating Forests, and other projects in other disciplines. 

Citizen science has become a huge part of the scientific process, contributing to advances in many areas. If you're interested in participating, Zooniverse is just the tip of the iceberg! Join the many individuals and classroom groups! who are participating! Your time and attention really DO make a difference, and you may learn just as much as the scientists do!