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Web Site Allows Citizen Scientists to Analyze Galaxy Collisions

By Mason Spirit contributor on November 1, 2010

Galaxy Zoo Mergers, a new web site developed by researchers at Mason and Oxford University, will give anyone—scientist or not—the chance to contribute to space research. By playing a “cosmic slot machine,” site visitors can compare images of colliding galaxies with millions of simulated images of galactic pileups.

These collisions, which astronomers call “galactic mergers,” could be the key to finding out why the universe contains the mix of galaxies it does—some with trailing spiral arms, others more like compact “balls” of stars.

Surprisingly, humans are much better than computers at spotting the best match between a real galactic merger image and a random selection of simulated merger images.

“Visitors to the Galaxy Zoo Mergers site use what’s rather like a giant slot machine, with a real image of a galactic merger in the center and eight randomly selected simulated merger images filling the other eight ‘slots’ around it,” says John Wallin, Mason associate professor of computational and data sciences. “By randomly cycling through the millions of simulated possibilities and selecting only the very best matches, our visitors are helping build up a profile of what kind of factors are necessary to create the galaxies we see in the universe around us. And, we hope, they’re having fun, too!”

“The volunteers who participate are not just users,” says astronomer Chris Lintott of Oxford. “They’re doing science. They’re doing the analysis we don’t have time for, because there could never be enough professional astronomers to do the job properly.”

—Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

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