Mapping the universe wouldn't be possible without technological marvels like the Hubble Telescope. But a new census of one million galaxies also requires the talents of the human eye.
Last week, astronomers from the University of Oxford, the University of Portsmouth and Johns Hopkins University launched the Galaxy Zoo project, a website that showcases stunning images of galaxies and asks visitors to help classify them.
Why do they need you, you ask? Well, the human brain is better at recognizing patterns than a computer. "Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies," the website explains, " would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful."
The images cataloged at Galaxy Zoo were taken using the robotic Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico, which uses a 142-megapixel digital camera to create the largest digital map of the universe. Most of the Zoo images have never been viewed by human eyes before.
Participants are asked to classify each as either a spiral galaxy, in which arms containing younger stars spiral out from old stars at the center, or a much more common elliptical galaxy that contains mostly old stars. Distinguishing between the two types is "as fundamental as knowing if a human is male or female," says one of the astronomers behind the project, Bob Nichol of the University of Portsmouth.
And what do we get for doing all this work? You can print out posters of any galaxy you categorize. There's also a competition to see which visitor is the best virtual astronomer.
Image: Spiral Galaxy M101, 27 million light years away, as seen by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Image Credit: ARC and the SDSS Collaboration, www.sdss.org.