Hang Out in the Galaxy Zoo

Would you like to contribute to something bigger than yourself? Have a few minutes every now and then, and access to a computer and the internet? You likely do if you’re reading this. If so, you too can help with research that is changing our understanding of the whole cosmos.

Galaxy Zoo is a new form of citizen science. Founded in 2007, the idea was very simple. Wonderful new telescopes and surveys of the sky were generating more information – more photographs of deep space – than the scientists behind the observing programs could possible classify. It’s not enough to just take a photograph of something to discover something new. You have to be able to “reduce” the observations into data – into a form that can be used to describe the scene statistically, or better, to test specific hypotheses.

Hubble Space Telescope image of deep space

An image of very deep space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Everything in this image is a galaxy, from foreground to the most distant dot. Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team. Source: http://hubblesite.org

Telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope (http://hubblesite.org/), and observing programs like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (http://www.sdss.org/) have imaged millions upon millions of very distant galaxies in certain areas of the sky. Some of these are billions of light years away. the challenge is that computers – so good at crunching information – are not yet very good at that “data reduction” step. In other words, you and I can look at a photo and tell right away if we’re looking at a photo of an elliptical galaxy (a little fuzzy blob of a thing), a spiral galaxy (a little fuzzy blob with distinct spiral structure), or something unusual (something that doesn’t fit the basic patterns).

So, in 2007 researchers reached out to the Internet – an early “cloud sourcing” exercise – for help. Now in its fourth iteration, Galaxy Zoo (http://www.galaxyzoo.org) lets users like you and me help with the mountain of galaxy images. In just a few minutes of preparation, you’ll be shown a photo of a galaxy and asked about its basic shape. A few other simple questions about what you see follows. All of your responses are taken by Galaxy Zoo by a simple “click on an icon” format. It’s a lot of fun, it’s real science, and some of the little galaxies you classify may never have been seen by anyone else (on Earth, that is). You can come back over and over, classifying more galaxies over time. You can also take on-line quizzes to test your knowledge about the universe.

As of 2012, the science team behind Galaxy Zoo have produced 25 scientific papers on the results of this effort. You can read all about the program, and also find links to the published results, at the Galaxy Zoo web site: http://www.galaxyzoo.org

Jump in! What are you waiting for?