The Zooniverse Project: Do Your Part to Help Astronomy Research (November 26, 2010)

Posted: November 26, 2010 by Mike Hubbartt in Space Exploration
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By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Astronomy Buffs might want to check out the Galaxy Zoo site to lend an amateur hand to astronomy research. The concept of this site is similar to other Internet-based corroborative research projects, many people work together to analyse information. In this case the information concerns astronomy.

Galaxy Zoo is a part of the Zooniverse Project which is an organization that used the time and eyes of volunteers to analyze information that a computer cannot deal with.  There are a number of projects currently going on in the Zooniverse. In the Galaxy Zoo project one answers questions about an image of a galaxy they are shown. In the Moon Zoom project, one answers questions about moon surface images. The newest project is one called “Old Weather” where you help classify information about weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I.

The human mind, believe it or not, still surpasses the computer’s abilities when it comes to analyzing images. You can look at an image and say it has this or that feature, even though the image itself doesn’t fit any of the classical standard shapes. I guess the best example of this is security words used on some web sites.  They present a word or set of numbers rendered in a weird blobby way. Few computers are capable of deciphering what the letters are, but a real human would see it in an instance. So this site takes advantage of our amazing cognitive abilities, by showing the images to several “organic” computers and letting them provide information, and then organizing the answers so that research scientists can makes use of the data. Pretty neat!

The information asked for is pretty basic. You aren’t expected to have any background on the subject. You are simply asked to look at an image, and answer some basic questions about it or make some comparisons. What is so cool about this is that the Internet gives the people doing scientific research access to thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of eyes which reduce an almost insurmountable project to analyze millions of images to a simple project. Now that I think about it, it’s almost like the Matrix Movie universe….

All the projects below provide links to papers written using the data of the project, Blogs with more information about what is happening with that project, and more. Which is a great way to see how the information you have helped create is being put to use.

In the Galaxy Zoo  project, you are shown an image that is part of a data set made up of a million galaxies imaged with the robotic telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  You then answer some simple questions about what you see. The questions are simple enough that even a person with only a very basic understanding of Astronomy can answer them. For instance the first question set is to determine what you are looking at, is it a smooth galaxy, one with features like spiral arms or a disk, or is it simple an artifact (some smudge, or defect that the computer through might be a galaxy but obviously isn’t).

Then based on your first answer, other questions are asked. The second set of questions is always the same for the same first answer. Your answer might lead to subsequent question sets. The question paths are always the same, the more you experience the site, the easier it becomes to move through images they provide. It really isn’t very difficult to answer the questions and you might be the first person ever to see this particular image! Although, I am sure several different people see the same image, giving a project to cross reference any one answer. In half an hour of looking you will go through quite a number of classifications.

The information provided by members is analyzed and organized and then made available to research scientists to help the do research and study the workings of the universe.

In the Moon Zoom project, there are two programs  to take part of. In one, you are shown an image of  the moon’s surface, (take from those created by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), then asked to locate craters in this image, bolder traces created by the impact, exploration hardware, and other interesting features. This project uses some interesting tools to help you click on and define the objects that you see in the image.  Another part of this project is called: “Boulder wars”. In this study you are shown two images, and choose which has the most boulders.

Again the information provided by members is analyzed and made available to scientists studying our Moon. The information created by this project is used to study the moon, its age, the effects of impacts and more.

The newest Zooniverse offering a is the Old Weather project. This project seeks to pull weather data out of log books of a variety of ships that sailed around the time of World War 1.  Participants are presented with a digital copy of one page of a log book. You locate the date, location, and weather information written on it, and enter this information. The log entry might also provide some other observations, which you can point out, but mostly they don’t.

The information you pull from these log books help climate scientists create a profile for the weather at sea during this part of history. Having a better view of history makes it easier to create wether trend profiles that can more accurately predict the future and analyze climate changes over our history.

I personally like the idea that I can spend some of my free time, or time when I am forced to cool my heals, to help further our knowledge of the universe. I applaude this project and hope that many of our readers take the time to participate.

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