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Volunteers needed to help unlock secrets of the universe

Volunteers needed to help unlock secrets of the universe

Stephen Kuper

Scientists from the University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are in need of volunteers to help with one of the biggest astronomy projects of the next 10 years.

In the new citizen science project launched today – known as AstroQuest – the researchers are looking for volunteers to study images of galaxies and figure out which light is coming from which galaxy.

ICRAR astrophysicist Dr Luke Davies said that when people go outside and look at the night sky, there is a lot of black with stars dotted around, but “when you look with a really powerful telescope for a long time, you can actually see galaxies and stars everywhere, all over the sky”.

“It’s really crowded, and all of the galaxies and stars overlap each other,” he added.

Dr Davies helps lead the Wide Area Vista ExtraGalactic Survey (WAVES), a million-dollar international project and the biggest spectroscopic galaxy evolution survey ever undertaken. He said WAVES needed to accurately measure the light coming from millions of galaxies.

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Dr Davies said professional astronomers had previously looked through the galaxies and fixed the computer’s mistakes, but there were not enough people to do it.

“We use sophisticated computer algorithms to make sense of where the light is coming from in these crowded regions. But the computer often gets it wrong. It’s simply no match for the human eye and brain.”

ICRAR citizen science project officer Lisa Evans said AstroQuest was looking for volunteers to take over from astronomers and check the computer’s work.  

“There’s never been a citizen science project quite like this before; this is the first time we’ve got people actually painting over the galaxies and drawing in where they are,” Evans said. 

The researchers say knowing the amount of light that comes from a galaxy can tell us 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 see how galaxies change as the universe gets older.

To register as a volunteer visit www.astroquest.net.au.

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