“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” -George Carlin
Whatever you may think of the chances are for intelligent life in our galaxy are today, I can guarantee you they’re going to go up dramatically in a few billion years. Sure, by that time the Earth may be a little too hot for comfort, and in that sense — as Split Lip Rayfield would say — we’ll probably
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a new-and-improved home out there, not only from among the stars and planets in our own galaxy, but from the ones in our closer, larger neighbor, Andromeda!
Over the next few billion years, our galactic big sister will continue to approach us, eventually merging with us and combining into — most probably — a giant elliptical galaxy.
What’s remarkable about this is that by time this merger takes place in the far future, a star-and-planet born today in Andromeda will have the potential to be Earth-like by then! So when we look at the young star clusters there today, these could be the future homes of civilizations like our own, or potentially colonizable and inhabitable worlds for human-like creatures.
And just like we have star clusters in our own galaxy (and background galaxies behind our galaxy’s stars), so does Andromeda. In the outer reaches of Andromeda (as seen in stunning resolution in the Hubble image, below), you can easily pick out background galaxies and star clusters.
But what about in the inner reaches of Andromeda?
It turns out the data is there, but it’s far too massive an undertaking for a team of scientists, and yet far too difficult an undertaking for artificial intelligence. After all, this is how much of Andromeda has been imaged by Hubble:
And this is what a tiny, tiny fraction of the Andromeda galaxy is encapsulated by a single Hubble image. Note the two prominent open star clusters in there.
So that’s the level-of-detail necessary to identify star clusters in our nearest-neighbor galaxy.
Well, it might be too big a task for a few dozen scientists and too smart of a task for a machine, but that’s what citizen science is all about, and so I’m pleased to introduce you to The Andromeda Project!
You can sign up and log in, or simply start classifying objects! When you begin, you’ll be presented with a tutorial, but I’d like to prep you anyway.
Here’s what you’re looking for.
First off, the most common actual thing you’ll find are star clusters, which can be blue, white or orange in these images, and can be bright and prominent or dim and faint, barely visible against the other stars in the plane of Andromeda.
There are also background galaxies, which is always a treat for me when one shows up!
These are often faint, diffuse and orange, and unlike star clusters cannot be resolved into individual points-of-light.
And finally, there are artifacts that contaminate the images. While cosmic rays (blue or orange streaky lines) and edge-of-field effects aren’t things that you should mark, diffraction spikes (from foreground, Milky Way stars) and the rarer satellite trails and ghost images (which I haven’t seen any of, yet) are important to identify.
And while there are some images that won’t have anything of interest at all, most of them have at least one interesting thing. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t sure how to mark something; I’m absolutely positive that’s a difficulty we all share!
Here, have a look at an image I came across, and see what you would’ve done?
I said there were three galaxies and one star cluster, although I’m not sure even now whether that’s correct.
Sometimes, when you find a star cluster, you’ll get a message like this:
A synthetic cluster? Believe it or not, this is brilliant! The team inserted fake star clusters of varying colors and brightnesses to make a control to see how good people are at identifying clusters. of different properties. When you find a synthetic cluster, it’s surefire confirmation that you’re finding something you’re supposed to find!
But don’t stop at just one; sometimes synthetic cluster and real clusters can show up alongside one another.
Did I miss a small one just to the right-of-center in the image above? Maybe, and that’s okay. Don’t worry if you get something wrong; plenty of people do and that’s taken into account!
The key is that there are many, many eyes on each of these images, and on average we’re good at getting it right. This is actually phase II of the Andromeda Project, and results from phase I can give you some indication of how the general public is doing. Check it out!