TUCSON, Ariz. — Astronomers are exploring the universe and they need your help. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory headquartered in Tucson captures images of space from nearby Kitt Peak and other locations across the globe. They say they are trying to map star clusters in nearby galaxies and the average person is better at identifying those images than any super computer.
On a starry night in Chile people can see the Milky Way just like we can, but there are two other eye catchers in the sky.
“They are very prominent in the southern hemisphere, people who live up in the north never get a chance to see them with the naked eye,” said NOAO Associate Astronomer Knut Olsen.
They are called the Magellanic Clouds and they are our closest neighboring galaxies.
“Galaxies are a large collection of stars bound together by gravity,” said Olsen.
The NOAO is trying to study clusters (hundreds to millions) of stars within those galaxies. These clusters are useful to astronomers because they can be age-dated with great precision and used to reconstruct a historical record of star formation. By counting the number of clusters as a function of age, astonombers can back out the birthrate of clusters and chart the interaction history of the clouds.
Olsen says it’s easier to look at clusters outside our own neighborhood.
“When we look at our Milky Way it’s like being inside a forest so you can't see the forest for the trees which are the stars essentially.”
It turns out. the human eye is far better at recognizing patterns than even the smartest super computer.
“The computer is very easily fooled, and thinks that bright star is a star cluster when it is just junk,” said Olsen.
Olsen says they need the help of citizen scientists to register on their website and help pour through massive amounts of data.
“Anybody can do it. We're just using people's innate abilities. Their human brain to pick out these objects.”
Marking a few bright spots on your computer could lead to discoveries about our own galaxy and even the greater universe.
“Those galaxies are interacting with the Milky Way and each other, and we think those Magellonic Clouds may have crashed together a few hundred million years ago.”