Modern astronomers have a delightful problem: our space telescopes are capable of producing millions upon millions of images of our universe. What do with all that data? Even the most ambitious and dedicated of full-time astronomers can only review so much.
Enter Galaxy Zoo. In 2007, researchers opened up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data to the public and within 24 hours, they were receiving 70,000 classifications an hour. Almost 150,000 people took part in the first round. With that many participants, it was easy to not only classify galaxies, but have the work thoroughly verified with multiple reviews of the images. A second round of classification questions resulted in more than 60,000,000 classifications.
Galaxy Zoo work continues today with Galaxy Zoo: Hubble. To participate, all you need to do is look at an image and answer a series of questions about the galaxy you see, such as: how rounded is it? Could it be a disk viewed edge-on? Does it have a spiral arm pattern? If so, how tightly wound are they? The site comes with a very easy and very detailed tutorial.
Why worry about what galaxies look like? Sorting and classifying galaxies gives us a clearer understanding of the types of galaxies there are, and how they might evolve over time. We want to understand things like how galaxies form and what happens when they collide. This mass review of imagery has also led to the discovery of some intriguing rare objects that otherwise might have gone unnoticed for decades.
Galaxy Zoo has a very active forum and a blog too. Be sure to check this one out. After all, what better way to unwind from a week of office politics and life’s other annoyances than to go soaring through the universe, cup of tea at hand?