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Citizen Scientists Needed to Unlock Secrets of Universe

By David Reneke

AstroQuest is enlisting citizen scientists to check the data detailing how distant galaxies grow and evolve.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is appealing to members of the public to climb onboard one of the biggest scientific projects of the next 10 years, AstroQuest. Volunteers will study images of distant galaxies and figure out which light is coming from which galaxy as part of the project.

Astrophysicist Dr Luke Davies of the University of Western Australia helps lead the Wide Area Vista ExtraGalactic Survey (WAVES), the biggest spectroscopic galaxy evolution survey ever undertaken. He said WAVES needs to accurately measure the light coming from millions of galaxies.

Astronomers use sophisticated computer algorithms to make sense of where the light is coming from in these crowded regions, but computers often get it wrong. It’s simply no match for the human eye and brain.

In the past, professional astronomers have individually fixed the computer’s mistakes, but as more galaxies are surveyed there simply aren’t enough people to do it. AstroQuest asks volunteers to join the mission and take over from professional astronomers and check the computer’s work. Where the computer has got it wrong, volunteers are asked to fix it with a simple process.

“The ICRAR team is ultimately trying to learn more about how galaxies in the early universe evolved into the galaxies that we see today,” Davies said. Knowing the amount of light that comes from a galaxy can tell researchers things like how many stars the galaxy currently has, how many stars it’s forming and how much dust is in it. You can then explore how things like where a galaxy lives in the universe and if it’s crashing into other galaxies affect how it evolves with time.

Anyone can become an AstroQuester from the comfort of their own lounge room. All that’s needed is a computer or laptop and an internet connection. By inspecting images of far-off galaxies, volunteers will help Australian astronomers with their research into how galaxies grow and evolve. You can sign up at astroquest.net.au


David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer, writer and broadcaster (www.davidreneke.com).