Life Science AstroQuest: Citizen scientists needed to help unlock secrets of our universe
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AstroQuest: Citizen scientists needed to help unlock secrets of our universe

Scientists are appealing for public help to study far away galaxies. Photo: ICRAR
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One of Australia’s peak space research agencies is calling for volunteer star-gazers to study images of galaxies and help unlock the secrets of our universe.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is appealing to members of the public interested in astronomy to climb onboard one of the biggest scientific projects of the next 10 years, AstroQuest.

Volunteers are needed to study images of far-off galaxies and figure out which light is coming from which galaxy as part of the citizen science project.

“When you go outside and look up at the night sky, there’s a lot of black with all of the stars dotted around,” astrophysicist Dr Luke Davies, from the University of Western Australia node of the ICRAR, said.

An image of AstroQuest galaxy alongside how it looks in the AstroQuest platform.
An image of AstroQuest galaxy alongside how it looks in the AstroQuest platform once a citizen scientist has ‘helped’ the computer to identify what belongs to the main galaxy and what doesn’t. Credit: ICRAR/AstroQuest

“But when you look with a really powerful telescope for a long time, you actually see that there are galaxies and stars everywhere, all over the sky.

It’s really, really crowded, and all of these galaxies and stars overlap with each other.”

Dr Davies helps lead WAVES—or the Wide Area Vista ExtraGalactic Survey—a million-dollar international project and the biggest spectroscopic galaxy evolution survey ever undertaken.

He said WAVES needs to accurately measure the light coming from millions of galaxies.

“We use sophisticated computer algorithms to make sense of where the light is coming from in these crowded regions,” Dr Davies said.

But the computer often gets it wrong. It’s simply no match for the human eye and brain.”

In the past, professional astronomers have individually trawled through all the galaxies and fixed the computer’s mistakes.

“But as more and more galaxies are surveyed, there simply aren’t enough people on our team to do it,” Dr Davies said.

AstroQuest asks volunteers to join the mission and take over from professional astronomers and check the computer’s work.

Where the computer has got it wrong, volunteers are asked to fix it.

“You can essentially be at the forefront of scientific research and help out a huge million-dollar international project just by being at your computer and drawing over pictures of galaxies,” Dr Davies said.

ICRAR citizen science project officer Lisa Evans said the project was unprecedented.

An image of an AstroQuest galaxy alongside how it looks in the AstroQuest platform
Credit: ICRAR/AstroQuest

“This is the first time we’ve got people actually painting over the galaxies and drawing in where they are,” she said.

Ms Evans has also added game features to AstroQuest, including leaderboards, quests and achievements.

The ICRAR team is ultimately trying to learn more about how galaxies in the early universe evolved into the galaxies that we see today, Dr Davies said.

Knowing the amount of light that comes from a galaxy can tell researchers things like how many stars the galaxy currently has, how many stars it’s forming and how much dust is in it.

“If you map out millions of galaxies and measure all of their properties you can actually see how galaxies change as the universe gets older,” Dr Davies said.

“You can then explore how things like where a galaxy lives in the Universe and if it’s crashing into other galaxies affect how it evolves with time.”

How to get involved

An image of an AstroQuest galaxy alongside how it looks in the AstroQuest platform
Credit: ICRAR/AstroQuest

Anyone can become an AstroQuester and help astronomers explore galaxies billions of light years away from the comfort of their own lounge room.

All that’s needed is a computer or laptop and an internet connection.

By inspecting images of far-off galaxies, volunteers will help Australian astronomers with their research into how galaxies grow and evolve.

Members of the public interested in getting involved can sign up at astroquest.net.au

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