Citizen scientists crowdsource the largest galactic catalog ever compiled

Delila James | @@delilalaw| September 25, 2013

Citizen scientists crowdsource the largest galactic catalog ever compiled

Astronomers turn to crowd-sourcing for building the largest galaxy catalog on Earth.

In a stupendous achievement, more than 83,000 volunteer citizen scientists working together have helped catalog over 300,000 galaxies in the largest database of its kind ever amassed, the University of Minnesota (UM) announced today (Sept. 24) in a news release. The new catalog, produced by a UM-led international team of researchers, is described in a paper just published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Galaxy Zoo project was launched in 2007 as a collaborative effort between researchers from many different institutions, including Oxford University, Yale University, and the University of California, Berkeley. According to co-founder and Oxford physicist Christ Lintott, the idea of recruiting citizen scientists to help classify galaxies was developed to help cope with the mind-numbingly large amount of data produced by modern science.

“In many parts of science, we’re not constrained by what data we can get, we’re constrained by what we can do with the data we have,” Lintott said in a 2010 article appearing in Time magazine. “Citizen science is a very powerful way of solving that problem.”

Aside from the daunting task of classifying staggeringly-large numbers of galaxies, researchers say that while computers are useful for measuring the size and color of galaxies, only the human eye can determine more difficult-to-describe properties such as shape and structure.

“This catalog is the first time we’ve been able to gather this much information about a population of galaxies,” said lead author Kyle Willet. “People all over the world are beginning to examine the data to gain a more detailed understanding of galaxy types.” Willet is a physics and astronomy post-doctoral researcher at UM’s College of Science and Engineering.

Between Feb. 2009 and April 2010, more than 83,000 Galaxy Zoo 2 volunteers of all different nationalities stared at online images amassed from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They answered questions about the distinguishing features of each galaxy, such as whether it had spirals, the number of spiral arms observed, or if it had bulges. All in all, the volunteers made 16 million classifications of 304, 122 galaxies, representing some 57 million computer clicks. That amount of work would take a single researchers about 30 years to complete, researchers said.

“We could never have produced a data catalog like this without crowdsourcing help from the public,” said co-author Lucy Fortson, a professor of physics and astronomy at UM’s College of Science and Engineering.

There can be little doubt that crowdsourcing is a powerful concept and mighty scientific tool whose time has come. And volunteer citizen scientists continue to be needed to help create the next catalog, researchers say, noting that no special skills are required. Those looking to participate should visit www.galaxyzoo.org.


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