Thursday, May 26, 2011

Watch out for Exploding Stars!

Hello again my citizen science friends! We haven't talked about our colleagues at the Zooniverse for a few weeks, so let's check back in and catch up on some more of their intriguing projects.

This week we're looking at the Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae project.  Developed in partnership with the Palomar Transient Factory, this project asks users to look for changes in the brightness of stars over time. Some of the largest brightening possible comes when a star explodes into a supernova and this project is dedicated to identifying those events.  Future projects may look at other brightenings such as those caused by alien planets crossing in front of the star or internal changes in the star's core.  For now it's just supernovae but all are interesting projects we look forward to in the future.

But back to the project at hand. In the supernova hunt computers are used to identify changes in brightness in a given area, laying a new image on top of an old one and "subtracting" the old one so only the new brightness can be seen. This is a sure sign of a important event, but computers often make mistakes and they can't accurately analyze what the image shows. That's where we come in. Participants are asked to confirm that a brightening has indeed taken place and provide some basic information about it so astronomers can analyze it further. Not only does this narrow down the candidates for further study but it also provides a good count of the brightenings that occur, either because of supernovae or from other astronomical events.

But hey!  There's even more.  Because not only is this project valuable from a scientific standpoint and interesting from an exploding star standpoint, it's also one of the easiest projects to learn and a great way to get started as a citizen scientist.  Just look at a picture and answer a few basic questions (Is it circular?  Is it symmetrical?, etc.).  That's all there is to it.  And since the computer has already identified the promising candidates you are looking at, odds are high that some interesting space-based event is happening in every picture you review.  No searching through dead-ends here!

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae web page and click "Get Started" to sign in with your existing Zooniverse profile. If you have not previously registered for another of their projects all it takes is your name, e-mail address, and a password to sign up.
  2. Click on Galaxy Zoo Supernovae: How to Take Part for a tutorial on analyzing supernova images.  After learning what to do you'll be presented with before and after test shots of the same spot in space and asked to compare the images.  After answering each question roll your mouse over the final image for the correct answer.  Keep answering the examples until you become an expert.
  3. Click on Galaxy Zoo Supernovae: Hunt for Supernovae to see new images and record your answers.  Don't worry about being perfect on each image...many users from across the world are also reviewing each one so a consensus answer of everyone's expertise can be used.
That's it!    The project continues adding new images as more telescope images are processed, and admittedly some days there are no new images for analysis.  But the number keeps increasing and will increase even more once additional objects (such as alien planets and other causes of brightness change) are added to the mix.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up and start having fun.

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