Citizen science: seeking amateur star-gazers for cluster research
US project uses photographs to help astronomers identify structures in three nearby galaxies.
A new project seeks citizen scientists to help discover previously unseen star clusters, and maybe even unlock secrets of the history of our universe.
The project is a collaboration between the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and Northwestern University in Illinois, US, and is called the Local Group Cluster Search. The aim is to combine high-quality images of three irregular nearby galaxies – the Triangulum, and Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – with the detective skills of amateur astronomers.
Together with the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, the trio form what is known as the Local Group. Identifying star clusters within them will greatly aid astronomers in their quest to understand rapid and rare stages of stellar evolution, the structure and scale of star formation, the evolution of cluster populations, and how the cluster's host galaxies have changed over billions of years.
“Algorithmic cluster searches have trouble eliminating false detections due to chance groupings of stars, while human-classified catalogues provide a reliable sample of clusters down to very faint brightness levels,” says project leader Cliff Johnson.
The Local Group Cluster Search uses images from a 2017 project called the Survey of the Magellanic Stellar History, or SMASH for short.
Rather than using the more traditional glass photographic plates to capture the clusters, SMASH uses the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is a massive digital camera at the NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
Volunteers are invited to join the project and help search for new stars by going to clustersearch.org.