The age of big data is upon us, and there are scarcely any fields of scientific research that are not affected. Take astronomy, for example. Thanks to cutting-edge instruments, software, and data-sharing, observatories worldwide are accumulating hundreds of terabytes in a single day and between 100 to 200 Petabytes a year. Once next-generation telescopes become operational, astronomy will likely enter the “exabyte era,” where 1018 bytes (one quintillion) of data are obtained annually. To keep up with this volume, astronomers are turning to machine learning and AI to handle the job of analysis.
While AI plays a growing role in data analysis, there are some instances where citizen astronomers are proving more capable. While examining data collected by the Dark Energy Survey (DES), amateur astronomer Giuseppe Donatiello discovered three faint galaxies that a machine-learning algorithm had apparently missed. These galaxies, all satellites of the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253), are now named Donatello II, III, and IV, in his honor. In this day of data-driven research, it’s good to know that sometimes there’s no substitute for human eyeballs and intellect.
It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.
Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.
Have you ever attended a star party, where amateur astronomers set up telescopes and invite the public to take a look at the night sky? If so, then you understand and appreciate how much these part-time but incredibly enthusiastic stargazers love to share the wonders of our Universe with others.
That type of passion and generosity of heart is the basis of a new organization that hopes to harness the proven capability of astronomy to bring hope, wonder and science to marginalized and isolated students and communities around the world.
Do aliens exist? Almost certainly. The universe is vast and ancient, and our corner of it is not particularly special. If life emerged here, it probably did elsewhere. Keep in mind this is a super broad assumption. A single instance of fossilized archaebacteria-like organisms five superclusters away would be all it takes to say, “Yes, there are aliens!” …if we could find them somehow.
This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, appears to show two spiral galaxies colliding. In fact, they are just overlapping from our vantage point and are likely quite distant from each other. The galaxies are named SDSS J115331 and LEDA 2073461, and they lie more than a billion light-years from Earth. This ‘photobombing’ of one galaxy getting in the same picture as another was originally found by volunteers from the Galaxy Zoo project, which uses the power of crowdsourcing to find unusual galaxies in our Universe.
Over the years, members of the public have regularly made exciting discoveries and meaningful contributions to the scientific process through citizen science projects. These citizen scientists sometimes mine large datasets for cosmic treasures, uncovering unknown objects such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, or other times bring an unusual phenomenon to scientists’ attention, such as the discovery of the new aurora-like spectacle called STEVE. Whatever the project, the advent of citizen science projects has changed the nature of scientific engagement between the public and the scientific community.
Now, unusual brown dwarf stars discovered by citizen scientists will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope, with the hopes of learning more about these rare objects. Excitingly, one of the citizen scientists has been named as a co-investigator on a winning Webb proposal.
On May 23, 2022, the Juno spacecraft made another close pass of Jupiter, with its suite of scientific instruments collecting data and its JunoCam visible light camera snapping photos all the while. This close pass, called a perijove, is the 42nd time the spacecraft has swung past Jupiter since Juno’s arrival in 2016.
What is that large dark smudge on Jupiter’s side? It may remind you of a certain scene from the sci-fi film “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” where a growing black spot appears in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
But this is a real photo, and the dark spot is just an elongated shadow of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Just like when Earth’s Moon crosses between our planet and the Sun creating an eclipse for lucky Earthlings, when Jupiter’s moons cross between the gas giant and the Sun, they create shadows too.
You’re looking at a 300-megapixel photo of our Sun. Astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy used a specially modified telescope, taking over 150,000 individual photos and combing them into this magnificent image.
“It took about 10 hours to stack all the data, and another 3-4 hours to get it from a raw stack to the final image,” McCarthy said via email.