How many arms does a spiral galaxy have? Can you spot a galaxy with a ‘peanut’ bulge? Or a galactic merger? Answers to these and other strange questions will be provided by ordinary web users who — by working together — have proven to be just as good at galaxy-spotting as professional astronomers.
The new initiative is a follow-up to the highly successful Galaxy Zoo project that enabled members of the public to take part in astronomy research online. But where the original site only asked members of the public to log whether a galaxy was spiral or elliptical, and which way it was rotating, Galaxy Zoo 2 asks them to delve deeper into 250,000 of the brightest and best galaxies to search for the strange and unusual.
The Galaxy Zoo 2 website was launched today at www.galaxyzoo.org
Astronomers came up with the idea of getting online volunteers involved because the human brain is still better at doing pattern recognition tasks than a computer. What they had not expected was the huge enthusiasm for the project; in the last 18 months 80 million classifications of galaxies were submitted on one million objects at www.galaxyzoo.org by more than 150,000 armchair astronomers from all over the world.
The Galaxy Zoo team is led by scientists from the University of Oxford, The University of Nottingham, the University of Portsmouth, Johns Hopkins University (USA), UC Berkley (USA), Penn State (USA), Adler Planetarium, Chicago (USA) and Yale (USA), and Fingerprint Digital Media of Belfast. The development of Galaxy Zoo 2 was funded by The Leverhulme Trust, and a grant from Microsoft.
“Galaxy Zoo has given everyone with a computer an opportunity to contribute to real scientific research. We want people to feel truly involved in the project and keep them up to date with what we’re doing and with the results they’re generating,” said Dr Steven Bamford of The University of Nottingham.
Dr Kevin Schawinski of Yale University, said: “The response from the public was absolutely overwhelming and, with their help, we've been able to learn a lot about how galaxies evolve and how they relate to their environment. With the detail from Zoo 2, we'll be able to discover even more about how galaxies work.”
As with the original site people are free to look at and describe as many galaxies as they like — even five minutes’ work will provide a valuable contribution. Galaxy Zoo 2 is intended to be even more fun as galaxies are pitted against each other in ‘Galaxy Wars’ (which one is more spirally?) and users can compete against their friends to describe more objects as well as record their best finds.
Proof that unusual discoveries can be made is the catalogue of merging galaxies provided by users — more than 3000 of these rare cosmic pile-ups have been caught in the act by Galaxy Zoo volunteers. The team have already used the IRAM radio telescope in Spain’s Sierra Nevada to follow up the most exciting mergers, and are asking for more examples to study.
“The first Galaxy Zoo provided us with a Rough Guide to the sky and now we want our users to fill in all the details and create a real Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxies,” said Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University, one of the founders of Galaxy Zoo.
“In this International Year of Astronomy, it’s great to have so many people looking at these beautiful images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” said Professor Bob Nichol of the University of Portsmouth. “No single professional astronomer has ever looked at all these images and sometimes astronomers miss the wonder of what they are. I think the public get this better than us.”
The new digital images used in Galaxy Zoo were taken using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico. For more on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey visit www.sdss.org
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.
The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.