Supernova hunt

By Phil Plait | August 14, 2009 1:00 pm

Wanna hunt for supernovae? Here’s your chance!

Supernova hunt at Galaxyzoo

The folks at Galaxy Zoo — the enormously successful and highly addictive citizen’s science site that lets you classify galaxies — have added a new twist: the ability to look for supernovae in their images. When a star blows up, it gets much brighter. So by taking the new Galaxy Zoo images and comparing them to older images, it’s possible to find a supernova. The two images need to be aligned, then scaled, then subtracted… and if there’s still something there, it may be a star that did not go gently into that good night.

They make it easy on you: they’ve done all the hard processing work, and present the results. The picture above is from the hunt. You look at it, answer some simple questions, and then move on to the next one. It’s not hard… except stopping. That’s hard.

If this works (and I think it will), I wonder what’s next for the clever brains behind Galaxy Zoo. Asteroid searches? Kuiper Belt Objects? There’s a lot of potential in them thar images, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of it realized.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (22)

  1. Brian Schlosser

    I think you broke it, Dr. P…

    “Galaxy Zoo Supernovae is closed for a while.”

  2. Roen

    Dr. P broke nothing. the site is broken

  3. Brian Schlosser

    Well, I KNOW, but that isn’t as FUNNY

  4. I read yesterday that NASA is expecting to fall short of it’s goals for identifying NEO’s. Could something like this be adapted for that kind of search?

  5. Patrick

    It was working well yesterday(Thursday) but now I’m getting a “site not found” message. I’ll try again tomorrow.

  6. Chanelle

    So, if the 3rd one is a subtraction image, why do all the background stars still show up. If they are the same in both images, shouldn’t they cancel out and be nearly or completely invisible? Phil says “and if there‚Äôs still something there, it may be a star that did not go gently into that good night” Isn’t there “something there” all over that frame? Maybe I’ve missed something.

  7. MrQhuest

    I think the rest of the frame filled with static.

  8. Brian Schlosser

    @chanelle… I thought those smaller white pixels were noise, not background stars… maybe I’m wrong?

  9. Roen

    Brian Schlosser

    Agreed,my bad. lol

  10. I saw this yesterday over at CV. I haven’t gone there yet because doing so will be like opening a bag of potato chips. I know how addictive these links can be. I still remember how I spent hours and hours watching the EarthNow! Landsat Image Viewer after Dr. BA linked to it. ūüėČ

  11. Nija

    WHY? Why do you post this – The rest of my day, FILLED with galaxies… I try to get my fill with the hubble deep field on my wall… but this… I can’t stop…

    Many thanks. :)

  12. It’s interesting, but for addiction there’s nothing like overeating pistachios here on this planet and pausing sometimes when you seem to feel a nut rolling a little in its shell to wonder if it’s one of those shriveled little rotten ones. Pistachio black holes, as it were…

  13. Autumn

    This sort of thing seems ideal for the detection of asteroids and comets, already an area where amateurs make important finds all the time. Just imagine, the internet could be responsible for discovering threats from space (if only a book existed which explored the possibility of cosmic catastrophes affecting Earth)!
    I never thought I’d say it, but the web might actually help save civilization!
    Hey! all you kids, ge. . .
    Ya know what, why don’t you just stay on my lawn for a while. . .

  14. Keith

    I wish that a supernova would occur in our galaxy in my lifetime.

  15. Roen

    Just an observation and perhaps a bit off topic.

    Ever since the SETI @ Home project the public is being more and more active in science, in this case astronomy. More and more the amateur astronomer is discovering objects, affects, etc very useful to the scientific community.

    Why not turn this vast resource on the most important topic in human survival… near Earth objects that can threaten our planet. At the moment it’s not coordinated in any real way. It is not that hard to gear a similar site for the search for near Earth objects. I’m sure the public would love to be involved in saving our planet rather than sit by while governments fail us.

  16. Darrin Cardani

    I’m a little confused by the pictures above, too. In the Reference picture, all of the stars look brighter, not just the one at the center. It seems like that picture is just a brighter exposure and/or at a lower resolution. And even the result looks like it has several bright spots. I assume the people running it know how to account for this sort of thing, but I’m curious how it works now!

  17. Ken

    I’ll second the suggestion from Thomas regarding the search for NEOs. Finding supernovae may be fun and all, but having a 150 foot space rock whack into the atmosphere directly above one’s head would result in a very bad day indeed.

  18. Levi in NY

    @ Keith: Me too! And I hope I happen to be looking at just the right spot in the sky when it happens. In fact, I must confess, I have stared at Betelgeuse before in the hopes that it will blow up before I glance away. Because, seriously, how cool would that be?

  19. The site isn’t broken – we took it down (around the same time this post went up). We’re very, very keen that people participating in Galaxy Zoo projects produce real science – at the minute, Supernova Zoo does that only when we have follow-up time available on a large telescope. There’ll be more next month (and we’re working to extend the uses we get out of it after excellent results this time) – keep an eye on the main site for details.

    A quick note to say that the reference image is deeper (it’s several standard images added together) but the subtraction routine handles that well. That’s one of things we will eventually fix.

    And thanks for the asteroid ideas – what I should say is watch this space…


  20. DanO

    If the image at the crosshairs that remains after subtraction is a supernova, then so are the other two! They are both of the same intensity. The most likely explanation for the differences between the compared images is either shutter speed or atmospheric. Not saying we should quit looking, just that this example is a poor one to use as a hit.

  21. Eric Vicaria

    I was reading about the discovery of glycine in the comet trail Stardust collected, and Stanley Miller’s cold version of his amino acid experiment ( and I was wondering about something related to supernovae:

    Since the Oort cloud is so extremely cold, and chemical reactions in solids are slow anyhow, is 4 or 5 billion years long enough for those amino acids to form in Oort cloud objects, too, rather than just comets which get cooked now and then? Supernovae happen often enough that I wonder how much net heat an Oort cloud icy rock would gain from all the supernovae around our solar system over the course of the last 4 billion years, and would that be enough heat to make a meaningful impact to the potential chemisty of the formation of amino acids?

  22. Keith, supernovas do occur in the Milky Way – check out beginning of year 1 C.E., but that’s about as close as you want to be to one, unless you want it to be the last thing you ever see.


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