Citizens Help Astronomers Spot Galaxies Computers Can’t Find

The SpaceWarps project invites people to look at images of space to identify galaxies that bend light around them.

Emma Hutchings
Emma Hutchings on May 16, 2013.

The SpaceWarps project invites online volunteers to look at images of space in search of ‘space warps’ (or ‘gravitational lenses’). These massive galaxies bend light around them, acting like giant lenses in space.

Astronomers hope that this project can help them find rare astronomical objects that computer algorithms tend to miss, and help to train the computers for future searches. Citizen scientists can look at deep sky images and help uncover the role dark matter plays in how galaxies form. One of the leaders of the research team, Dr. Phil Marshall of Oxford University‘s Department of Physics, said:

Not only do space warps act like lenses, magnifying the distant galaxies behind them, but we can also use the light they distort to weigh them, helping us to figure out how much dark matter they contain and how it’s distributed. Gravitational lenses help us to answer all kinds of questions about galaxies, including how many very low mass stars such as brown dwarfs – which aren’t bright enough to detect directly in many observations – are lurking in distant galaxies.

Help Astronomers Spot Galaxies That Computers Can’t Find

The SpaceWarps project is a lens discovery engine. Volunteers are given examples of what space warps look like and are shown how to mark potential candidates on each image.

Previous studies have shown that the human brain is better at identifying complex lenses than computers are, and that members of the public can be as good at spotting astronomical objects as experts. After identifying possible space warp candidates in images, people will be able to discuss them on an online forum and create computer models of their discoveries.