An ambitious galaxy-mapping mission has identified nearly 250,000 galaxies in a quest to better understand dark energy, the mysterious force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.
The results provided by the Hobby–Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), located at the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, would not have been possible without the assistance of more than 10,000 amateur astronomers to help with its discovery.
Volunteers contribute online to a project called Dark Energy Explorers, which involves little more than swiping a smartphone or computer right in front of a real galaxy. with random noises.
This allows them to explore the secrets of the universe with astronomers, while aiding in the hunt for distant galaxies and ultimately helping them learn more about it. dark energy,
The ultimate goal of the project is to produce the most comprehensive 3D map of the universe, focusing on galaxies in the early universe, to measure the rates of expansion and thus find clues about the mysterious force of dark energy.
HETDEX Project Operator (opens in new tab) The project is expected to take off in February 2021 with the drafting of more amateur scientists. That’s because the 247,000 galaxies the survey has identified so far represent only one-tenth of the total number of galaxies it is estimated to uncover in a patch of sky roughly the size of 2,000 full moons. Is equal.
“That’s why we need more people,” Astronomy HETDEX principal investigator Carl Gebhardt of UT Austin said in a statement. Statement (opens in new tab), “If we can get 100,000 people to volunteer, which I think is possible around the world, we’re there next year.”
Volunteers ‘swipe right’ on the proverbial Tinder
The dark energy explorers volunteers use the Zooniverse platform (opens in new tab) Through your smartphone app or website. Zooniverse represents the world’s largest amateur science organization and allows users to select Dark Energy Explorers from a list of projects after creating a free account.
After a brief tutorial, new dark energy explorers look at astronomical images and choose whether they represent a nearby galaxy or a distant and thus ancient one. They then begin a separate workflow in which they decide whether an image contains a galaxy or just random noise.
Thus Dark Energy Explorer volunteers are often the first humans to gaze upon a newly discovered galaxy. The amateur scientists then swipe right on the images, which they believe are galaxies like a cosmic version of Tinder.
“It’s really exciting to see how excited the public is to classify these galaxies,” said project leader Lindsey House, a graduate student at the University of Texas Austin.
Dark energy is believed to account for about 70% of the total energy and matter in the universe, but even so, scientists know little about what it does beyond its effect of accelerating the expansion of the universe.
Studying how ancient galaxies separated from each other can help us better understand the dynamics of dark energy and is an important step in determining what it is and where it comes from.
To do this and get a glimpse of dark energy at work, however, astronomers need a massive sample of distant galaxies to study. This massive catalog of ancient galaxies is exactly what HETDEX aims to build, operating with the 11-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in West Texas.
The Dark Energy Explorers program is key in this, allowing amateur scientists to reduce the time it takes to identify galaxies by up to 90%, allowing them to instead focus on more difficult detections.
Volunteers are essential to the project because humans have proven to be much better than sophisticated computer programs at distinguishing between galaxies and noise.
“We tried writing computer code to do this and also used machine learning, but we found that the human eye is much better,” Gebhardt said. “At first we were skeptical, but we were surprised by the accuracy.”
Thus identifying these 1.25-million galaxies requires about 4 million swipes from the volunteers. This is because each candidate galaxy is reviewed by 15 people who must reach a consensus, which improves the accuracy of the process.
The team’s research is detailed in the December 1 edition of the journal Nature,
You can learn more about how to participate in the HETDEX project on the Zooniverse website, or through the smartphone app on iOS (opens in new tab) and Android.
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