Comment »Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:25 am by Colin Stuart
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

The days of the lone astronomer are long gone. Modern astronomical research is a multi-national and highly organised outfit with million dollar telescopes perched high on mountain tops in some of the most remote places on Earth. These optical leviathans don’t even need a pupil at the eyepiece; computers are more than capable of doing that for us.

You might think then, that this world of highly mechanised, suped-up star-spotters was beyond the clutches of your average Joe, but you’d be wrong. Around the world an army of enthusiastic amateurs, often armed with nothing more than their home computers, are reeling in the secrets of the universe. Meet the citizen astronomers.

Comets

David Evans works for SERTEC, a company based in Coleshill, Warwickshire, specialising in the manufacture of parts and components for the automotive industry. At least that’s what pays his bills. David’s real passion is astronomy and he has discovered nineteen comets previously unknown to science, all from the comfort of his home PC.

“My first discovery was confirmed 22 June 2002 by Derek Hammer of NASA. I found the comet in images which were taken by the SOHO Space Telescope on 13 June 2002,” David explained, referring to a telescope whose job it is to stare at the Sun. As these comets pass in front of the Sun their silhouettes can be spotted by those who have the patience to sift through the mountains of data produced by modern telescopes.

And that’s the appeal of citizen astronomers to those who research the cosmos for a living. Often a human is still better at discerning detail than computers, but the professional astronomers simply don’t have the time or the resources to analyse all the data. By farming it out in manageable chunks to citizen astronomers, more research can be done and the public get a real chance to contribute to cutting edge science.

GalaxyZoo

One extremely successful example is Galaxy Zoo, a citizen astronomy project designed to get members of the public classifying galaxies. Galaxies are huge collections of stars gathered together in space, and they come in many different shapes and sizes. The Galaxy Zoo community are presented with photos of galaxies and asked simple questions about what they can see. They might be asked to choose from a sliding scale as to how round it is, or how many spiral arms it’s got.

The beauty of Galaxy Zoo is that it sends out the same photo to many users and only if a consensus is reached between a high percentage of users do the team know they can trust the classification. Such has been the success of the project that a completely new type of galaxy has been discovered this way.

Melanie-Jane Ryal, a personal assistant, is a keen Galaxy Zoo user, “The Galaxy Zoo project is amazingly easy to get involved with. All you have to do is register and then do a short test to ensure you know what you’re looking at. As an amateur it allows you to feel involved as you’re helping to classify galaxies that very few other people have seen,” she said. That’s the kicker, sometimes you get to be the very first human ever to lay eyes on a particular galaxy, a galaxy that contains billions of stars, and perhaps even other life forms.

SETI@home

And the search for aliens, or more officially The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), hasn’t been overlooked by citizen astronomy; in fact it was one of the trail blazers. I’ve previously blogged about the SETI@home project celebrating it’s tenth year keenly listening to signals from space and trying to detect evidence of an interstellar phone call. But the key to the success of this project has been that, in true citizen astronomy style, the data is farmed out to you and I. SETI@home uses your spare computer power to work its way through the radio waves received by the giant Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico.

Once downloaded to your PC the SETI@home program gets to work whilst your not. When you’re away from your PC having a cuppa or fielding a phone call, SETI@home kicks in and starts using your computer to decipher the messages. No signal has been found yet that astronomers believe not to have come naturally from space but thanks to home PC’s they are getting through the data much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Public Engagement

It is appropriate that SETI@home is celebrating it’s inaugural decade, just as astronomers are celebrating another temporal milestone. This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy or IYA2009, to mark four centuries since Galileo first used the telescope to gaze at the heavens. IYA2009 has been an opportunity for professional astronomers to engage with the public and Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and sees citizen astronomy as an indispensable tool in this process.

“Citizen astronomy is a tremendous opportunity to engage members of the public with real scientific research in a way which would have been impossible only a few years ago,” he said. And he agrees that the astronomers get more than just an extension of their computing power. “It’s not a one-sided process either – the scientists also benefit enormously because it enables them to answer questions which they simply couldn’t tackle on their own, getting extra value out of the large amounts of data which are now routinely gathered by telescopes, space missions and earth-monitoring experiments.”

So citizen astronomy is many things. It’s an opportunity for astronomers to engage with the public. It’s an opportunity for that public to actively, and often indispensably, contribute to cutting edge research. But most importantly it’s a way for astronomers to unlock the scientific secrets hidden amongst the astronomically sized sets of data churning out of the myriad of hardware both in space and on the ground.

As we move into the 401st year of the telescope, the next great discovery could just come from you, your friends, or the citizen astronomer next door.


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