Unlocking Universal secrets

Astronomical observations have certainly come a long way.

In the past, observatories had astronomers, mainly men, to look at the heavens and do the thinking about it. They’d also enlist lower-paid workers, mainly women, to inspect glass plates and identify stars, nebulae and galaxies. The women were known as ‘computers’ due to the large amount of data they would analyse, and not surprisingly many of them became very, very expert at astronomy.

In modern times, astronomers (all genders welcome) are still gazing up at the skies, but advancements in technology means they can look deeper into space and record data on millions of galaxies. Now, the computers astronomers are using are machines, capable of processing massive amounts of observations.

However, these computers don’t always get it right. That’s where citizen science project AstroQuest comes into the picture.

“To help discover things in this data, we need to carefully identify the boundary of every galaxy surveyed,” explains AstroQuest project officer Lisa Evans.

“AstroQuesters inspect each galaxy and let us know if the computer got it right, and if not what’s wrong with the computer’s guess at where the edge of the galaxy is.”

The project is the successor of the Galaxy Explorer citizen science project, which was developed by ABC Science to help astronomers at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), in Western Australia. When the opportunity came up to engage more citizen scientists and continue the work from the Galaxy Explorer project, the team started working to make AstroQuest a reality. It launched in early 2019.

Astroquestteam prefer
The AstroQuest team. Credit: ICRAR and Astrofest Astrophotography (COMET)

Since then, the project has seen more than 10,000 citizen scientists from across the world inspecting more than 60,000 galaxies. These observations aid in building a database that will assist astronomers creating a picture of what has happened in galaxies from when the Universe was much younger, up to now.

The project has also helped improve the ProFound algorithm that astronomers use to decipher the observations. With the valuable input from citizen scientists, the computers are now able to “get it right” much more often.

The Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey and the Wide Area Vista Extragalactic Survey (WAVES) survey are the research projects behind AstroQuest. Both are co-led by Simon Driver from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), in Western Australia.

“AstroQuesters are helping the GAMA and WAVES teams compile their galaxy catalogues, helping them build a database with information about how much light each galaxy is emitting at each wavelength, how quickly they are forming new stars, how much dust they contain, and what phase of life they are currently in,” Evans says.

And, if you’re not sold by helping astronomers explore the Universe, the project also offers up some healthy competition through the incorporation of game-like elements.

“Instead of just having participants work through the galaxy data, we wanted to give our volunteers a feeling of accomplishment, and some rewards for their hard work,” Evans explains.

“We also wanted a way to make sure new users weren’t thrown into the deep end, having to immediately inspect galaxies with lots of overlapping objects to deal with or a lot of confusing noise and interference.”

“So we used game concepts like XP and levels to ramp up the challenge presented to users, giving them harder galaxies to do as they gain experience and skill.”

The project also had leader boards so you can keep track of your achievements and be a part of the wider community on the site.

To get involved, it’s as easy as heading to the AstroQuest website. Once there, click ‘begin quest’ and fill out the registration form. From there, you can get hunting and competing against other people.

AstroQuest can also be brought into the classroom with teacher guides linked to the Australian Curriculum also available online.

The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education resource based on this article. You can access it here.

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