Citizen scientists power cosmic research

By February 24th, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Comment

barred galaxies

Each galaxy in top row has a bar.

British astronomers have shed new light on an intriguing quirk in the anatomy of certain galaxies: a structure that looks like a bar running through a galaxy’s center. But how the researchers formulated their findings is just as interesting as the findings themselves. Their report is based on an analysis of a mountain of astronomical mug shots conducted by a dedicated group of citizen scientists.

The research is the latest result from Galaxy Zoo, one of the most effective “pro-am” citizen science programs that we know of. On its website, Galaxy Zoo invites volunteers to view and categorize photos of galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s robotic telescope. During the first phase of this collaboration, nearly 150,000 participants submitted more than 50 million analyses, categorizing the galaxies as either spiral or elliptical in shape. The latest findings about “barred galaxies” are from a new, more elaborate phase called Galaxy Zoo 2.

In a recent blog post, team leader Karen Masters of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation in Portsmouth, England, told project participants that the findings boil down to this: Red-colored galaxies are more likely to contain a central bar than are blue galaxies. Here’s an excerpt:

So we seem to split disk galaxies into two populations – ones that are red, have large bulges and are very likely to have bars, and ones that are blue, have small bulges, and are not so likely to have bars.

This gives an overall picture in which bars may be very important to the evolution of disk galaxies – perhaps more so than has been thought before. It’s very interesting, and I look forward to spending more time with barred galaxies and with the rich data set that you have given us with Galaxy Zoo 2.

Masters just submitted the report to the Royal Astronomical Society for publication.

Galaxy Zoo 2 recently notified its citizen astronomers by email that there is a “queue of new images of galaxies waiting for you, which will take you deeper into the Universe than ever before.” The notice reminded participants to make sure that their correct names are listed in their profiles.  Why? “We need to make sure we give you, our coauthors and collaborators, proper credit. ”

Now that’s a partnership.

Interested in doing a little cosmic classifying yourself? Our Project Finder has information about Galaxy Zoo and many other astronomy and space projects.

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