Help a Needy Astronomer—Play the "Cosmic Slot Machine"

By Brett Israel | November 25, 2009 12:00 pm

galactic-mergersAstronomers want you… to help them match pictures of cosmic collisions, which are known as “galactic mergers.” Studying these mergers could explain why the universe has the mix of galaxy types – from those with wound-up spiral arms to compact balls of stars – that it does. And it turns out that the human eye is much better than a computer at matching up images of real mergers with randomly-selected images of simulated mergers []. So naturally, astronomers want to enlist the eyes of Internet users to help them.

The website, Galaxy Zoo Mergers, features a new game that bears (it must be said) only a mild resemblance a Vegas slot machine, with a real galactic merger image in the middle and eight randomly selected images of simulated mergers in the slots around it. Players pick out the best matches and can even manipulate the number of stars they see or an image’s orientation to make a better match. Says researcher Chris Lintott: “By randomly cycling through the millions of simulated possibilities and selecting only the very best matches, they are helping to build up a profile of what kinds of factors are necessary to create the galaxies we see in the universe around us – and, hopefully, having fun, too” [].

This is the latest project from Galaxy Zoo to rely on crowdsourcing. Over the past two years, Galaxy Zoo has enlisted 250,000 Internet users to classify hundreds of thousands of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey – an effort that so far has resulted in 15 scientific papers, either submitted or published [MSNBC]. This new project will focus on 3,000 merger images, including some new ones taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The researchers say their attempts to understand the dynamics of a galactic merger is like trying to understand a car crash– they hope to find out what caused it, and what the final outcome will be for the galaxies involved.

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Image: Galaxy Zoo


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