Four Candidates For Planet 9 Located

A concentrated three-day search for a mysterious, unseen planet in the far reaches of our own solar system has yielded four possible candidates. The search for the so-called Planet 9 was part of a real-time search with a Zooniverse citizen science project, in coordination with the BBC’s Stargazing Live broadcast from the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory.

A view of data from SAMI, a new multi-object integral field spectrograph at Siding Spring Observatory, which was used to look for the hypothetical Planet 9. Credit: Dilyar Barat via Twitter.

Researcher Brad Tucker from ANU, who led the effort, said about 60,000 people from around the world classified over four million objects during the three days, using data from the SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring. He and his team said that even if none of the four candidates turn out to be the hypothetical Planet 9, the effort was scientifically valuable, helping to verify their search methods as exceptionally viable.

“We’ve detected minor planets Chiron and Comacina, which demonstrates the approach we’re taking could find Planet 9 if it’s there,” Tucker said. “We’ve managed to rule out a planet about the size of Neptune being in about 90 per cent of the southern sky out to a depth of about 350 times the distance the Earth is from the Sun.

Researchers from Australian National University pose with BBC astronomers Chris Lintott, Brian Cox and Dara O’Brien. Credit: ANU.

Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet when they found that the orbits of several different Kuiper Belt Objects were likely being influenced by a massive body, located out beyond the orbit of Pluto, about 200 times further than the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This planet would be Neptune-sized, roughly 10 times more massive than Earth. But the search is difficult because the object is likely 1000 times fainter than Pluto.

The search has been on, with many researchers working on both new observations and sifting through old data. This recent project used archival data from the Skymapper Telescope.

“With the help of tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers sifting through hundreds of thousands of images taken by SkyMapper,” Tucker said, “we have achieved four years of scientific analysis in under three days. One of those volunteers, Toby Roberts, has made 12,000 classifications.”

Mike Brown chimed in on Twitter that he thought this concentrated search was a great idea:

Tucker said he and his team at ANU will work to confirm whether or not the unknown space objects are Planet 9 by using telescopes at Siding Spring and around the world, and he encouraged people to continue to hunt for Planet 9 through Zooniverse project, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.

Source: ANU

JPL Needs Citizen Scientists To Hunt Martian Polygonal Ridges

Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.

One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.

This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).

 Shiprock, a ridge-feature in northwestern New Mexico that is 10 meters (30 feet) tall, which formed from lava filling an underground fracture that resisted erosion better than the material around it did. Credit: NASA

While similar-looking ridges can be found in many places on Mars, they do not appear to be formed by any single process. As Laura Kerber, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the survey report, explained in a NASA press release:

“Finding these ridges in the Medusae Fossae region set me on a quest to find all the types of polygonal ridges on Mars… Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars. Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground.”

Such ridges have also been found on Earth, and appear to be the result of various processes as well. One of the most common involves lava flowing into preexisting fractures in the ground, which then survived when erosion stripped the surrounding material away. A good example of this is the Shiprock (shown above), a monadrock located in San Juan County, New Mexico.

Examples of polygon ridges on Mars include the feature known as “Garden City“, which was discovered by the Curiosity rover mission. Measuring just a few centimeters in height, these ridges appeared to be the result of mineral-laden groundwater moving through underground fissures, which led to standing mineral veins once the surrounding soil eroded away.

Mineral veins at the “Garden City” site, examined by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL

At the other end of the scale, ridges that measure around 2 kilometers (over a mile) high have also been found. A good example of this is “Inca City“, a feature observed by the Mars Global Surveyor near Mars’ south pole. In this case, the feature is believed to be the result of underground faults (which were formed from impacts) filling with lava over time. Here too, erosion gradually stripped away the surrounding rock, exposing the standing lava rock.

In short, these features are evidence of underground water and volcanic activity on Mars. And by finding more examples of these polygon-ridges, scientists will be able to study the geological record of Mars more closely. Hence why Kerber is seeking help from the public through a citizen-science project called Planet Four: Ridges.

Established earlier this month on Zooniverse – a volunteer-powered research platform – this project has made images obtained by the MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) available to the public. Currently, this and other projects using data from CTX and HiRISE have drawn the participation of more than 150,000 volunteers from around the world.

By getting volunteers to sort through the CTX images for ridge formations, Kerber and her team hopes that previously-unidentified ones will be identified and that their relationship with other Martian features will be better understood.

Further Reading: NASA

Mars Needs You! Help Scientists Track Spring Thaw On Red Planet

We’ve been watching Mars with spacecraft for about 50 years, but there’s still so little we know about the Red Planet. Take this sequence of images in this post recently taken by a powerful camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Spring arrives in the southern hemisphere and produces a bunch of mysteries, such as gray-blue streaks you can see in a picture below.

That’s where citizen scientists can come in, according to a recent post for the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera that took these pictures. They’re asking people with a little spare time to sign up for Planet Four (a Zooniverse project) to look at mysterious Mars features. With amateurs and professionals working together, maybe we’ll learn more about these strange changes you see below.

On Aug. 20, 2014, Martian dust mounds are on top of the araneiforms in 'Inca City', as well as dark areas on the terrain showing where the ice cap in the southern hemisphere burst and sent gas and dust into the surroundings. Fans in the area are pointing in multiple directions, showing how the wind has changed. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 20, 2014, Martian dust mounds are on top of the araneiforms in ‘Inca City’, as well as dark areas on the terrain showing where the ice cap in the southern hemisphere burst and sent gas and dust into the surroundings. Fans in the area are pointing in multiple directions, showing how the wind has changed. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 25, 2014, more fans and blotches appear on the Martian landscape around "Inca City", a location in the southern polar region, as the ice bursts in the springtime sun. Image obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 25, 2014, more fans and blotches appear on the Martian landscape around “Inca City”, a location in the southern polar region, as the ice bursts in the springtime sun. Image obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As of Sept. 6, 2014, fans in "Inca City" in the Martian southern hemisphere are now blue-gray. Why this color appears in the spring is unknown. It could be because of particles falling into ice underneath, or gas bursting from the ice condensing and falling as frost. It could even be a combination of the two. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As of Sept. 6, 2014, fans in “Inca City” in the Martian southern hemisphere are now blue-gray. Why this color appears in the spring is unknown. It could be because of particles falling into ice underneath, or gas bursting from the ice condensing and falling as frost. It could even be a combination of the two. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As spring takes hold in the southern polar region of Mars on Sept. 27, 2014, cracks are now developing in the ice at "Inca City" with multiple new dust fans appearing. Cracks develop when the ice does not have a path to easily rupture and release gas. Picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As spring takes hold in the southern polar region of Mars on Sept. 27, 2014, cracks are now developing in the ice at “Inca City” with multiple new dust fans appearing. Cracks develop when the ice does not have a path to easily rupture and release gas. Picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Zooniverse Reaches One Million Volunteers

Zooniverse — the renowned home of citizen science projects — is now one million strong. That’s one million registered volunteers since the project began less than seven years ago.

It all began when Galaxy Zoo launched in July 2007. The initial response to this project was overwhelming. Since then the Zooniverse team has created almost 30 citizen science projects ranging from astronomy to zoology.

“We are constantly amazed by the effort that the community puts into our projects,” said the Zooniverse team in an email regarding the news late last week.

Many projects have produced unique scientific results, ranging from individual discoveries to classifications that rely on input from thousands of volunteers. As of today there are 60+ papers listed on the websites publications page, many of which have made the news.

In the first two weeks after Galaxy Zoo’s launch, registered citizen scientists classified more than a million galaxies. Each volunteer was presented with an image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and asked to classifiy the galaxy as belonging to one of six categories: elliptical, clockwise spiral, anticlockwise spiral, edge-on, merger, or unsure.

An example of an unknown galaxy needing classification. Image credit: Galaxy Zoo
An example of an unknown galaxy needing classification. Image credit: Galaxy Zoo

But citizen scientists weren’t simply labeling galaxies, they were helping astronomers to answer crucial questions and raise new ones about our current understandings of galaxy evolution. One significant finding showed that bar-shaped features in spiral galaxies has doubled over the latter half of the history of the Universe. This confirms that bars signify maturity in spiral galaxies and play an important role in shutting down star formation.

Another finding downplayed the importance of collisions in forming supermassive black holes. Citizen scientists found 13 bulgeless galaxies — suggesting they had never experienced a major collision — with supermassive black holes, nonetheless. All healthy black holes, with masses at least millions of times that of the Sun, must have grown through less dramatic processes.

Planet Hunters — a citizen science project developed in 2010 — has also seen wide success. Ordinary citizens examine the Kepler Space Telescope’s light curves of stars and flag any slight dips in brightness that might indicate a planet crossing in front of the star. Many eyes examine each light curve, allowing some to cross check others.

An example light curve.
An example light curve asking for any obvious dips. Image Credit: Planet Hunters

In roughly three years, citizen scientists examined more than 19 million Kepler light curves. Contrary to what many astronomers expected, ordinary citizens were able to spot transiting objects that many computer algorithms missed.

In 2012, Planet Hunter volunteers, Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano discovered an exoplanet in a four-star system. The Neptune-size planet, labeled “Planet Hunters 1” (PH1), orbits its two parent stars every 138 days. A second pair of stars, approximately 90 billion miles away, are also gravitationally bound to the system. This wacky system was later confirmed by professional astronomers.

In 2013, Planet Hunter volunteers discovered yet another planet candidate, which, if confirmed, would make a known six-planet system really the first seven-planet system. The five innermost planets are smaller than Neptune, while the two outer planets are gas giants. All orbit within Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

These are only a few of Zooniverse’s citizen science projects. Others allow ordinary citizens to help analyze how whales communicate with one another, study the lives of the ancient Greeks, and even look at real life cancer data. So join today and become number one million and one.

Zooniverse is produced by the Citizen Science Alliance, which works with many academic and other partners worldwide.

Search for Planetary Nurseries in the Latest Citizen Science Project

Growing up, my sister played video games and I read books. Now that she has a one-year-old daughter we constantly argue over how her little girl should spend her time. Should she read books in order to increase her vocabulary and stretch her imagination? Or should she play video games in order to strengthen her hand-eye coordination and train her mind to find patterns?

I like to believe that I did so well in school because of my initial unadorned love for books. But I might be about to lose that argument as gamers prove their value in science and more specifically astronomy.

Take a quick look through Zooniverse and you’ll be amazed by the number of Citizen Science projects. You can explore the surface of the moon in Moon Zoo, determine how galaxies form in Galaxy Zoo and search for Earth-like planets in Planet Hunters.

In 2011 two citizen scientists made big news when they discovered two exoplanet candidates — demonstrating that human pattern recognition can easily compliment the powerful computer algorithms created by the Kepler team.

But now we’re introducing yet another Citizen Science project: Disk Detective.

Planets form and grow within dusty circling planes of gas that surround young stars. However, there are many outstanding questions and details within this process that still elude us. The best way to better understand how planets form is to directly image nearby planetary nurseries. But first we have to find them.


“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, James Garvin, in a press release.

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) scanned the entire sky at infrared wavelengths for a year. It took detailed measurements of more than 745 million objects.

Astronomers have used complex computer algorithms to search this vast amount of data for objects that glow bright in the infrared. But now they’re calling on your help. Not only do planetary nurseries glow in the infrared but so do galaxies, interstellar dust clouds and asteroids.

While there’s likely to be thousands of planetary nurseries glowing bright in the data, we have to separate them from everything else. And the only way to do this is to inspect every single image by eye — a monumental challenge for any astronomer — hence the invention of Disk Detective.

Brief animations allow the user to help classify the object based on relatively simple criteria, such as whether or not the object is round or if there are multiple objects.

“Disk Detective’s simple and engaging interface allows volunteers from all over the world to participate in cutting-edge astronomy research that wouldn’t even be possible without their efforts,” said Laura Whyte, director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.

The project is hoping to find two types of developing planetary environments, distinguished by their age. The first, known as a young stellar object disk is, well, young. It’s less than 5 million years old and contains large quantities of gas. The second, known as a debris disk, is older than 5 million years. It contains no gas but instead belts of rocky or icy debris similar to our very own asteroid and Kupier belts.

So what are you waiting for? Head to Disk Detective and help astronomers understand how complex worlds form in dusty disks of gas. The book will be there when you get back.

The original press release may be found here.

NASA Plans To Deepen Asteroid Searches With Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources Inc. — that company that is developing a crowdsourced space telescope to search for asteroids — is planning to work on “crowdsourced software solutions” to make it easier to find asteroids and other near-Earth objects, using NASA-funded data.

NASA announced that Planetary Resources will receive a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement to help NASA characterize near-Earth objects. It’s the first initiative announced under NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, which the agency announced this summer as a vehicle to find threats to Earth.

A contest is planned in 2014 that will also include participation from the Zooniverse’s forthcoming Asteroid Zoo platform (which includes participation from Planetary Resources). Zooniverse is known for providing ordinary people the chance to participate in astronomical searches, including galaxies and asteroid features.

NASA’s role will be to “develop and manage” the contest, while Planetary Resources is expected to “facilitate the use of NASA-funded sky survey data and help support the algorithm competition and review results,” the agency stated.

NASA is trying mightily to move forward with its plans to capture an explore an asteroid in the next few years, but there’s no guarantee that the agency will receive the funds it wants for it in the fiscal 2014 budget. Politicians have expressed concern that the mission is not interesting the public; besides which, the agency is already battling for funds for its commercial crew and planetary science programs, among others.

Source: NASA

Watch Live Webcast: Space Warps

Want to join the hunt for new galaxies? During a special G+ Hangout today, June 5, a team of astronomers will share how you can help them find faint and distant galaxies by joining a search they’ve called “Space Warps.” This is a new project from the Zooniverse. The team of astronomers will discuss gravitational lensing, a strange phenomenon that actually makes it possible for us to see a galaxy far away and otherwise hidden by clusters of galaxies in front of them. They will also answer your questions about their ongoing search for distant galaxies, what this reveals about the cosmos, and how astronomers are beginning to fill out our picture of the universe.

You can watch in the window below, and the webcast starts at 21:00 UTC (2:00 p.m. PDT, 5:00 pm EDT). You can take part in thise live Google+ Hangout, and have your questions answered by submitting them before or during the webcast. Email questions to [email protected] or send a message on Twitter with the hashtag #KavliAstro.

If you miss it live, you can watch the replay below, as well.

The participants:
• ANUPREETA MORE is a co-Principal Investigator of Space Warps and a postdoctoral fellow at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo.
• PHILIP MARSHALL is a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and SLAC.
• ARFON SMITH is Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and Technical Lead of Zooniverse (

You can also get more info at the Kavli Foundation, and visit the Space Warps website here.

How To Crowdsource Astronomy Without People Messing It Up

Maybe it’s because Jurassic Park is in theaters again, but we at Universe Today sometimes worry about how one person can mess up an otherwise technologically amazing system. It took just one nefarious employee to shut down the dinosaur park’s security fences in the movie and cause havoc. How do we ensure science can fight against that, especially when everyday citizens are getting more and more involved in the scientific process?

But perhaps, after talking to Chris Lintott, that view is too suspicious. Lintott is in charge of a collaborative astronomy and science project called the Zooniverse that uses public contributions to fuel some of the science he performs. Basically, anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to contribute can hunt for planets or examine astronomical objects, among many other projects.

Lintott, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, says the science requires public contributions. Moreover, he hasn’t had a problem yet despite 800,000 individual contributors to the Zooniverse. He told Universe Today about how that’s possible in an e-mail interview.

1) Zooniverse has already produced tangible scientific results in space through collaborating with ordinary folks. Can you talk about some of the papers/findings that have been produced in your various projects?

There’s a long, long list. I’m particularly excited at the minute about our work on bulgeless galaxies; most spiral galaxies have a bulge full of old stars at their centre, but we’ve found plenty that don’t. That’s exciting because we think that means that they’re guaranteed not to have had a big merger in the last 10 billion years or so, and that means we can use them to figure out just what effect mergers have on galaxies. You’ll be hearing more about them in the next year or so as we have plenty of observing time lined up.

I’m also a big fan of Planet Hunters 1b, our first confirmed planet discovery – it’s a planet in a four-star system, and thus provides a nice challenge to our understanding of how planets form. We’ve found lots of planet candidates (systems where we’re more than 90% sure there’s a planet there) but it’s nice to get one confirmed and especially nice for it to be such an interesting world.

One of Zooniverse's projects examines the nature of spiral galaxies, particularly those without central bulges at the center. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)
One of Zooniverse’s projects examines the nature of spiral galaxies, particularly those without central bulges at the center. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)

2) What benefits have you received from involving the public in space projects, in terms of results as well as raising awareness?

We couldn’t do our research any other way. Astronomers have got very good in the last few decades at collecting information about the universe, but we’re not always so good at learning how to use all of that information. The Zooniverse allows us to collaborate with hundreds of thousands of people so that we can scale our efforts to deal with that flood of data, and many of those volunteers go much further than just clicking on buttons we provide. So really our research is now driven in collaboration with thousands of people, spread all around the world – that’s an inspiring thought.

3) How many people do you manage in your space projects, approximately? How do you keep track of them all?

We have more than 800,000 registered volunteers – luckily, the computer keeps track of them (when they log in!).

4) How do you ensure their results meet the standards of scientific publication?

We carefully design projects so that we’re sure they will produce scientifically useful results before they’re launched; this usually means running a test with a small amount of data and comparing work done by volunteers with that of professionals. We usually find the volunteers are better than us! It helps that we have several people complete each task, so collectively we don’t make accidental mistakes.

5) How do you guard against somebody deliberately or accidentally altering the results?

The system insists that every classification is independent, and as we have several people look at each classification finding any deliberate attack would be easy – in any case, we’ve never seen any evidence of such a thing. Despite popular reports, most people are nice!

Wishing the Zooniverse a Happy 5th Birthday!

Galaxy Zoo was a project set up in July 2007 by astronomers Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski asking members of the public to help classify a million galaxy images produced by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Five years on and Galaxy Zoo has grown into an entire Zooniverse of projects allowing members to contribute to real science across a range of disciplines. Join us to celebrate the giant of citizen science, mark its achievements and look forward to the future.

Modern science can produce huge amounts of data and making sense of it all can take years and often needs a human eye to pick out the fine details. The Zooniverse unleashes an army of willing volunteers to pore over images and data sets. Galaxy Zoo members have now classified over 250 million galaxies. At the time of writing there are currently 656,773 people taking part in Zooniverse projects across the globe. Galaxy Zoo participants alone have contributed to more than 30 published scientific papers. One of the Zooniverse’s great strengths is the ability to throw up some unexpected discoveries like the now famous Hanny’s Voorwerp, named after Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel, the Galaxy Zoo volunteer who spotted it. Such a serendipitous discovery is possible when data is exposed to large numbers of users who are encouraged to flag up anything they think looks out of the ordinary.

To mark Galaxy Zoo’s 5th birthday there will be a relaunch of the project which will compare images using a new dataset from Hubble’s CANDELS survey of distant, early galaxies to what we see today.

The range of projects now available to members is extensive. Users of the Solar Stormwatch project analyse interactive diagrams produced by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO). Planet Hunters use data from Kepler to search for transiting exoplanets. The Milky Way Project users have access to image data from the Spitzer Space Telescope to identify infrared bubbles in the interstellar medium to help us understand how stars form. SETI Live searches for interesting signals coming from the Kepler Field. Moon Zoo participants use data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to catalogue features on the Moon down to the size of a wastepaper basket.

Away from space there are also projects involved in climate, nature and humanities. Old Weather is a project that models Earth’s climate using wartime shipping logs and Whale FM members listen to, and catagorize, the songs of Orcas to help understand what the whales are saying, while Ancient Lives gives participants the chance to decipher and study the Oxyrhynchus collection of papyri. The NEEMO project analyzes images of marine life and features taken from the underwater base at the National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo, Florida. What’s the Score asks people to help describe over four thousand digitised musical scores made available by the Bodleian Libraries. With a global posse of citizen scientists eager to study real data at their disposal, the range of projects will likely grow over the coming years. So happy 5th Birthday Zooniverse and here’s to many more!

To find out more and how you can get involved visit the Zooniverse website

Lead image caption: Galaxies gone wild. Source NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA) ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)

The Milky Way Galactic Disk – Forever Blowing Bubbles


Score another one for citizen science! In a study released just days ago, a new catalog containing over five thousand infrared bubble entries was added through the “Milky Way Project” website. The work was done independently by at least five participants who measured parameters for position, radius, thickness, eccentricity and position angle. Not only did their work focus on these areas, but the non-professionals were responsible for recovering the locations of at least 86% of additional bubble and HII catalogs. Cool stuff? You bet. Almost one third of the Milky Way Project’s studied bubbles are located at the edge of an even larger bubble – or have more lodged inside. This opens the door to further understanding the dynamics of triggered star formation!

Just what is the Milky Way Project? Thanks to the Galaxy Zoo and Zooniverse, scientists have been able to enlist the help of an extensive community of volunteers able to tackle and analyze huge amounts of data – data that contains information which computer algorithms might miss. In this case it’s visually searching through the Galactic plane for whole or broken ring-shaped structures in images done by Spitzer’s Galactic Legacy Infrared Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project. Here the bubbles overlap and the structures are so complex that only humans can sort them out for now.

Screenshot of the Milky Way Project user interface.
Screenshot of the Milky Way Project user interface.
“The MWP is the ninth online citizen science project created using the Zooniverse Application Programming Interface
(API) tool set. The Zooniverse API is the core software supporting the activities of all Zooniverse citizen science projects.” says R. J. Simpson (et al). “Built originally for Galaxy Zoo 2, the software is now being used by 11 different projects. The Zooniverse API is designed primarily as a tool for serving up a large collection of `assets’ (for example, images or video) to an interface, and collecting back user-generated interactions with these assets.”

Through the interface, users mark the location of bubbles and other areas of significance such as small bubbles, green knots, dark nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, fuzzy red objects or simply unknowns. During this phase, the citizen scientist can make as many annotations as he or she wants before they submit their findings and receive a new assignment. Each annotated image is then stored in a database as a classification and the user can access their image again in an area of the website known as “My Galaxy”. However, images may only be classified once.

Example of raw user drawings and reduced, cleaned result using a sample MWP image. A GLIMPSE-only colour sam- ple is included to illustrate the dierences in the appearance of images inspected by CP06 and the MWP users.
When identifying galactic bubbles, the user creates a circle around the area which can be scaled to size and stretched into an elliptical configuration. Initially as the object is identified and marked, the user can control the position and size of the bubble. Once annotated the parameters can be edited, such as the ellipticity, annular thickness and rotation. The program even allows for regions where no obvious emission is present, such as a broken or partial bubble. This allows the user to match the bubbles they find in individual images to achieve an accurate representation You can even mark a favorite or interesting configuration as well!

“In order to assist in the data-reduction process, users are given scores according to how experienced they are at drawing bubbles. We treat the first 10 bubbles a user draws as practice drawings and these are not included in the final reduction. Users begin with a score of 0 and are given scores according to the number of precision bubbles they have drawn.” explains the team. “Precision bubbles are those drawn using the full tool set, meaning they have to have adjusted the ellipticity, the thickness and the rotation. This is done to ensure that users’ scores reflect their ability to draw bubbles well. While only precision bubbles are used to score volunteers, all bubbles drawn as included in the data reduction. The scores are used as weights when averaging the bubble drawings to produce the catalogue.”

Now it’s time to combine all that data. As of October of last year, the program has created a database of 520,120 user-drawn bubbles. The information is then sorted out and processed – with many inclusions left for further investigation. However, not all bubbles make the cut. When it comes to this project, only bubbles that have been identified fifty times or more are included into the catalog. What remains is a “clean bubble” – one that has been verified by at least five users and picked out at least 10% of the time by the volunteers when displayed.

“It is not known how many bubbles exist in the Galaxy, hence it is impossible to quantify the completeness of the MWP catalogue. There will be bubbles that are either not visible in the data used on the MWP, or that are not seen as bubbles.” says the team. “Distant bubbles may be obscured by foreground extinction. Faint bubbles may be masked by bright Galactic background emission or confused with brighter nebular structures. Fragmented or highly distorted bubbles present at high inclination angles may not appear as bubbles to the observer.”

Error measurements for MWP bubble MWP1G309059+01661. This bubble has a hit rate of 0.437, and a dispersion of 1.61'. Top gures show reduced and raw bubble drawings. Bottom figures show dispersions in measurements of position and size.
But don’t let it burst your bubble. This citizen science approach is an excellent idea from the the standpoint of observer objectivity and the final, reduced catalogue contains 5,106 visually identified bubbles. Of these, they are divided into a catalogue of 3,744 large bubbles identified by users as ellipses, and a catalogue of 1,362 small bubbles annotated by users at the highest zoom level images in the MWP.

And that’s not all… “In addition to the reduced bubble catalogue, a crowd sourced `heat map’ of bubble drawings has also been produced. The MWP `heat maps’ allow the bubble drawings to be explored without them needing to be reduced to elliptical annuli. Rather, the `heat maps’ allow contours of overlapping classifications to be drawn over regions of the Galactic plane reflecting levels of agreement between independent classifiers. In most cases the structures outlined in these maps are photo-dissociation regions traced by 8 um emission, but more fundamentally they are regions that multiple volunteers agree reflect the rims of bubbles.”

Yep. They are bubbles alright. Bubble produced around huge stars when an HII region is hollowed out by thermal overpressure, stellar winds, radiation pressure or a combination of them all. This impacts the surrounding, cold interstellar medium and creates a visible shell – or bubble. These regions serve as perfect observation points “to test theories of sequential, massive star formation triggered by massive star winds and radiation pressure” and to keep us forever fascinated…

And forever studying bubbles.

Original Story Source: The Milky Way Project First Data Release: A Bubblier Galactic Disk. For Further Reading: The Milky Way Project Zooniverse Blog.