One of the big problems in recent astronomy is that we’re collecting data faster than we can analyze it. This is no joke; modern survey telescopes equipped with digital detectors can generate many gigabytes of data every night. Sweeping across the sky, they look for asteroids, exploding stars, anything that changes from one night to the next. Computers can analyze the data, and in many cases they’re pretty good at it.
But not at everything. For example, you get an image that, to your eye, has a few hundred faint fuzzy galaxies in it. Your job is to identify the type of galaxy: elliptical, spiral, peculiar, whatever. Better hurry! By tomorrow, you’ll have 20 images just like this one, but of different parts of the sky. You think, I’ll program my computer to do this! One popular piece of software, called Source Extractor, or (seriously) SExtractor for short, can do a decent job. But it isn’t perfect.
Chris Lintott, a UK astronomer (...) felt the same way (...). He and his team want to categorize thousands, hundreds of thousands of galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey images (...). Why not open it up to the public, they thought, and let people get it a try?
So they created Galaxy Zoo. You sign up, take a brief test to see how well you can identify galaxies (it’s fun!), and if you can get a high enough score, off you go! You are sent a galaxy image (a program looks at all the data and decides if an object is a galaxy or not) and asked if it’s an elliptical, a merger (a product of two galaxies colliding), or a spiral. You click the appropriate button, and the next galaxy is automatically served to you.
Now’s your chance to find out. Go and explore space. Warning: it’s addictive. The hardest part is stopping.