Crowdsourcing Astronomy: NASA Enlists Citizen Scientists With New Hubble Galaxy Photo

By Ben Wolford on January 10, 2014 3:55 PM EST

You can crowdsource just about anything these days: cookie recipes, your science homework, a diagnosis for that rash on your arm. NASA and its partners have been on a mission lately to crowdsource the universe. So on Thursday the Hubble Space Telescope released another galaxy picture in the hope that citizen scientists will comb it for star clusters. With data from 3,000 star clusters, they can date the regions of the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, or M83.

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STAR DATE: M83, as the project is known, is part of a larger trend in astronomy to enlist the uncompensated brainpower of passionate amateurs. NASA has already used crowdsourcing to brainstorm solutions to problems and map other galaxies. Last summer, the space agency put out a call for ideas about how to save the earth from a potential asteroid collision. "By harnessing the public's interest in space and asteroid detection, we can more quickly identify the potential threats, as well as the opportunities," said NASA's Chris Lewicki in a statement.

Another organization, called Zooniverse, has led crowdsourced research on a range of projects, from identifying star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy to modeling the earth's climate using the notes from ships' crews. "Help scientists recover worldwide weather observations made by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships," they said. "These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and improve a database of weather extremes. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and the stories of the people on board."

Zooniverse is also organizing the effort to map M83, a spiral galaxy about 15 million light-years away in the southern corner of the constellation Hydra (that's the snake). The photo, one of hundreds of thousands taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch in 1990, spans 50,000 light-years of stars just born and long dead. Here's another picture that shows the scale of this thing:

When NASA crowdsources, it isn't looking to build brand awareness with a cute PR stunt. The information it gathers from the public will actually be viewed by scientists as legitimate research, according to Zooniverse. Even assuming the data will be fact-checked by paid professionals, it might seem like pretty high-level stuff for untrained bloggers and bored high schoolers to be dealing with.

But actually it's not too tough. There are certain things in the photo to look for. (You can see a higher-resolution photo here.) For example, the bright pink spots are the newest stars, only 1 million to10 million years old (young in stellar time). They're shedding an enormous amount of ultraviolet light that gets absorbed by interstellar dust, which causes them to glow in a pink hydrogen light. As the stars age, their stellar winds blow away the gas, and they turn blue. Eventually, they turn yellow and orange. When they die, they explode as supernovae, leaving vast dark spaces full of nebular matter — the raw material for new stars to form millions or billions of years later. (This galaxy as we view it, remember, is 15 million years old.) The project STAR DATE: M83 starts Jan. 13, and anybody can sign up.

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