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Researchers asking for public's help to create 'map of the universe'

A team of researchers is compiling the public's answers on certain space images to classify galaxies and stars.
Posted at 9:04 PM, Feb 01, 2023

The cosmos seemingly stretches on to infinity, and stunning images of it are captured by powerful telescopes. While our solar system is pretty well mapped out, the rest of the universe is not. 

Enter a team of researchers led by astronomy professor Karl Gebhardt.

"The one thing that I love about astronomy is that it allows us to step outside of our daily lives and look at the bigger picture for where we came from," said Gebhardt, who leads Dark Energy Explorers, a research project based at the University of Texas in Austin.

Their goal is to create the first map of the universe.

"This is a huge experiment," he said.

So much so, they're turning to the public for help.

Isaiah Pipkin is an undergraduate double-majoring in astronomy and physics, who's working on the project.

"Since they did a blind survey of the sky, we have millions of sources that are unclassified," Pipkin said.

Through an app called Zooniverse or by logging on with a computer, anyone can join Dark Energy Explorers, part of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). After a brief online tutorial, anyone can look at images captured by the team's telescope and identify what they are.

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"Could be a star, a meteor, a black hole, an actual galaxy; it could be a non-source," Pipkin said. "And so, that's why we need all the involvement because we just have so many."

"With each of the sources, we want to have about 10 to 15 individuals each vote on them," Gebhardt said. "So, then we can average their votes together."

That work will eventually flesh out a map of the universe, but there are millions of images that need to be looked at.

"It's not just something we're doing to show them the images," said Lindsay House, a Ph.D. candidate. "They're actually helping us make this map of the universe."

In most cases, House said, the person looking at the image is the first human to ever lay eyes on it.

"Every single galaxy that the public sees on Dark Energy Explores is the first look at this galaxy," House said.

So far, 11,000 volunteers in 85 countries have made nearly 4 million classifications and identified 250,000 galaxies.

However, the team said they need about 10 times that many people to get it all done — work that could eventually help answer questions like why the universe is expanding more rapidly and why gravity works the way it does.

"It is a very big picture," Gebhardt said. “We're completely insignificant in the scale of the universe, but perhaps to have us come together and to make this fundamental understanding, I love that."

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