In Discover Magazine’s September print issue, the article “To the Edge and Back” describes how a telescope as big as the world will give astronomers an extreme closeup when our galaxy’s black hole lights up. The Global Telescope Network provides a citizen science opportunity to connect with the world’s stargazers.
Our universe is filled with curious phenomena. Flickering pulsars, giant gamma ray bubbles, dark energy and dark matter1. These are just a few of the mysteries astrophysicists are trying to understand. If you have ever looked to the stars and wondered, the Global Telescope Network (GTN) is your opportunity to help unravel the riddles of our universe.
The GTN is a network of professional scientists, amateur astronomers, educators and students supporting ongoing research projects to understand our universe. Started about ten years ago by NASA, the GTN was a mechanism to engage the public in science and address the need for long-term monitoring of various stellar objects. Currently the GTN supports the research efforts of the space observatories Fermi and Swift, and orbiting observatory XMM-Newton. In particular the GTN is assisting in the study of quasars and gamma ray bursts.
“Quasars are important objects to study because they will help inform us about galaxy formation and evolution,” says Dr. Kevin McLin outreach coordinator for the GTN. Quasars are distant active galactic nuclei objects which give off huge quantities of energy. Quasars were identified by their large focal output of radio waves. Initially thought to be stars, this was later discovered to be untrue, astrophysicists gave these phenomena the name ‘quasi-stellar radio sources’ or ‘quasars’. Currently scientists think quasars are located around and derive their energy from supermassive black holes located at the center of large distant galaxies. 2, 3 How these quasars are formed is not understood. However given the distance quasars’ emissions have traveled to reach us, scientist suspect quasars were more common when the universe was younger.
Gamma ray bursts are another high energy phenomena. In contrast to quasars which originate from a specific point, gamma ray burst appear as random explosions of energy. Originally detected in the 1960’s by Department of Defense satellites, the source and cause of gamma ray bursts remain relatively unknown. Gamma rays are extremely high sources of electromagnetic energy. Gamma ray bursts are some of the highest electromagnetic energy explosions observed and occur on a timescale of milliseconds to seconds.4 Because of their random nature, scientists have no way of knowing where and when they will occur. To understand them, scientists must rely on observations gathered from the area where the burst originated after the fact.
Individuals interested in helping with these research questions will find a range of activities varying in time commitment and complexity. “There are different levels of involvement geared to different levels of expertise,” explains McLin. “We have high school and college students do activities as part of a class project. In these cases we provide the students and instructors with guidance and training in the data gathering and analysis process. We also have individuals who work relatively autonomously. It all depends on what best fits their needs, experience and interests.”
“One of the simplest activities it to help us analyze images. Our telescopes are constantly recording data and it is necessary to go through them. All that is needed is imaging software some version of which are open source. Other activities require access to a telescope outfitted with a CCD camera but even then the equipment is easy to purchase and something many astronomy enthusiasts are likely to have.”
McLin emphasizes that all these activities work with real data. “Education and outreach is a huge component of this network. We want to give individuals the experience of doing science the way it is really done. This isn’t your classroom lab experiment. There won’t be an answer at the back of the book. Participants learn to deal with uncertainty and variability, just as professional scientists do. It is a great educational experience and we think it helps address misconceptions about how science is conducted.”
“We also hope that the network will enable people to be more engaged in learning about our universe and maybe come up with questions of their own. We also want to encourage people to use the telescopes in our network. If folks have a project they are interested in, they should let us know. It might be possible.”
For more information about the Global Telescope Network and opportunities to get involved visit this link.
You can also find 800+ citizen science opportunities using the SciStarter portal!