Citizen Scientist Project Finds Thousands of ‘Star Bubbles’


Remember when you were a kid and blowing bubbles was such great fun? Well, stars kind of do that too. The “bubbles” are partial or complete rings of dust and gas that occur around young stars in active star-forming regions, known as stellar nurseries. So far, over 5,000 bubbles have been found, but there are many more out there awaiting discovery. Now there is a project that you can take part in yourself, to help find more of these intriguing objects.

The Milky Way Project, part of Zooniverse, has been cataloguing these cosmic bubbles thanks to assistance from the public, or “citizen scientists” – anyone can help by examining images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, specifically the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL).

They have been seen before, but now the task is to find as many as possible in the newer, high-resolution images from Spitzer. A previous catalogue of star bubbles in 2007 listed 269 of them. Four other researchers had found about 600 of them in 2006. Now they are being found by the thousands. As of now, the new catalogue lists 5,106 bubbles, after looking at almost half a million images so far. As it turns out, humans are more skilled at identifying them in the images than a computer algorithm would be. People are better at pattern recognition and then making a judgment based on the data as to what actually is a bubble and what isn’t.

The bubbles form around hot, young massive stars where it is thought that the intense light being emitted causes a shock wave, blowing out a space, or bubble, in the surrounding gas and dust.

Eli Bressert, of the European Southern Observatory and Milky Way Project team member, stated that our galaxy “is basically like champagne, there are so many bubbles.” He adds, “We thought we were going to be able to answer a lot of questions, but it’s going to be bringing us way more questions than answers right now. This is really starting something new in astronomy that we haven’t been able to do.”

There are currently about 35,000 volunteers in the project; if you would like to take part, you can go to The Milky Way Project for more information.

Help Scientists Decide on Which KBOs the New Horizons Spacecraft Will Visit

How would you like to help choose an additional destination or two for a spacecraft heading to the outer solar system? A new citizen science project from the Zooniverse — called Ice Hunters — will allow the public to help discover a potential new, icy follow-on destination for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is currently en route to make the first flyby of the Pluto system. However, after it zooms past Pluto, the spacecraft will have the capability to explore other Kuiper Belt Objects. But, the destination has yet to be chosen. That’s where you can help.

“Projects like this make the public part of modern space exploration,” said Dr. Pamela Gay. “The New Horizon’s mission was launched knowing we’d have to discover the object it would visit after Pluto. Now is the time to make that discovery and thanks to IceHunters, anyone can be that discoverer.”

With Ice Hunters, the public can help scientists search through specially-obtained deep telescopic images for currently unknown objects in the Kuiper Belt. While the images you’ll be perusing in Ice Hunters won’t be the beautiful astronomical images seen in the Galaxy Zoo classification of galaxies or the Moon Zoo images of the Moon, the science rewards in Ice Hunters will be spectacular.

And there’s more: there’s also the potential for discovering variable stars and asteroids.

What’s cool is that you’ll be searching for KBO’s and potential dwarf planets in much the same way that Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto: comparing images of the same region of the Kuiper Belt and looking for objects that move or vary in brightness.

“The New Horizons project is breaking new ground in many ways,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “We’re flying by a new kind of planet and we’ll be making the most distant encounters with planetary bodies in the history of space exploration, and now we’re employing citizen science to help find our potential extended mission flyby targets, perhaps a billion kilometers farther than even distant Pluto and its moons. We’re very excited to be working with Zooniverse and breaking this new kind of ground. We hope the public will be excited to join in with us and with Zooniverse to make a little history of their own by discovering our next flyby target after Pluto.”

Somewhere, on the outer edges of the solar system an icy body lurks undiscovered, orbiting on a path that will just happen to carry it toward a potential rendezvous with the New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons will flyby Pluto in 2015, and there will be enough gas in the spacecraft’s tank to fly toward at least one and possibly two Kuiper Belt Objects in the distant outer solar system. The expected date of the KBO flyby will be between 2016 and 2020, depending on the object chosen and its distance from Pluto.

Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to find the most interesting KBO possible for New Horizons to visit. If that object can be found , it will become the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the outer solar system, extending past Neptune, (from 30AU) out to nearly twice Neptune’s orbit (out to roughly 55AU), which contains icy bodies in a variety of different sizes up to thousands of kilometers across. The first KBO other than Pluto was only discovered in 1992, and the KBO population is still not well mapped. Ice Hunters will do its part to study one small slice of the Kuiper Belt as it looks for an object along New Horizon’s trajectory after its Pluto flyby.

Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, scientists have imaged that region, producing millions of pictures for that could contain images of the rare objects that are orbiting toward just the right location, along with many other small worlds on different trajectories.

In “difference” images, which are created by subtracting observations taken at two different times, scientists can mostly (but not entirely) remove the light from constant sources like stars and galaxies. Left behind are the things that move or vary in brightness, which is what the users of IceHunters will be looking for. Since the stars never subtract off perfectly, the images appear messy, and computers can’t be trained to find objects as effectively as people can.

“When you’re looking for something special in masses of messy, real-world data, sometimes there’s no substitute for the human eye, and Zooniverse Ice Hunters will put thousands of eyes to work on this important job,” said John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute, a member of the New Horizons science team who is coordinating the search effort.

Just as other Zooniverse projects have easy-to-use websites, is no different. “Using just about any modern web-browser, users can circle potential KBOs and mark with a star the locations of asteroids,” said web developer Cory Lehan from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who has participated in several Zooniverse web designs. “The website is filled with examples to help get people started. Anyone should be able to take part – No Flash required.”

So check out Ice Hunters and start discovering today!

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

The Zooniverse is Expanding: The Milky Way Project Begins Today


From the folks that brought you the addictive citizen science projects Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo (among others), comes yet another way to explore our Universe and help out scientists at the same time. The Milky Way Project invites members of the public to look at images from infrared surveys of our Milky Way and flag features such as gas bubbles, knots of gas and dust and star clusters.

As with the other Zooniverse projects, the participation of the public is a core feature. Accompanying the Milky Way Project is a way for Zooniverse members – lovingly called “zooites” – to discuss the images they’ve cataloged. Called Milky Way Talk, users can submit images they find curious or just plain beautiful to the talk forum for discussion.

The Milky Way Project uses data from the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL). These two surveys have imaged the Milky Way in infrared light at different frequencies. GLIMPSE at 3.6, 4.5, 5.8, and 8 microns, and MIPSGAL at 24 and 70 microns. In the infrared, things that don’t emit much visible light – such as large gas clouds excited by stellar radiation – are apparent in images.

The new project aims at cataloging bubbles, star clusters, knots of gas and dark nebulae. All of these objects are interesting in their own ways.

Bubbles – large structures of gas in the galactic plane – belie areas where young stars are altering the interstellar medium that surrounds them. They heat up the dust and/or ionize the gas that surrounds them, and the flow of particles from the star pushes the diffuse material surrounding out into bubble shapes.

The green knots are where the gas and dust are more dense, and might be regions that contain stellar nurseries. Similarly, dark nebulae – nebulae that appear darker than the surrounding gas – are of interest to astronomers because they may also point to stellar formation of high-mass stars.

Star clusters and galaxies outside of the Milky Way may also be visible in some of the images. Though the cataloging of these objects isn’t the main focus of the project, zooites can flag them in the images for later discussion. Just like in the other Zooniverse projects, which use data from robotic surveys, there is always the chance that you will be the first person ever to look at something in one of the images. You could even be like Galaxy Zoo member Hanny and discover something that astronomers will spend telescope time looking at!

This image is full of objects that are interesting to astronomers for study. You can help them pick out which things to study. Image Credit: Spitzer/The Milky Way Project

The GLIMPSE-MIPSGAL surveys were performed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Over 440,000 images – all taken in the infrared – are in the catalog and need to be sifted through. This is a serious undertaking, one that cannot be accomplished by graduate students in astronomy alone.

In cataloging these bubbles for subsequent analysis, Milky Way Project members can help astronomers understand both the interstellar medium and the stars themselves imaged by the survey. It will also help them to make a map of the Milky Way’s stellar formation regions.

As with the other Zooniverse projects, this newest addition relies on the human brain’s ability to pick out patterns. Diffuse or oddly-shaped bubbles – such as those that appear “popped” or are elliptical – are difficult for a computer to analyze. So, it’s up to willing members of the public to help out the astronomy community. The Zooniverse community boasts over 350,000 members participating in their various projects.

A little cataloging and research of these gas bubbles has already been done by researchers. The Milky Way Project site references work by Churchwell, et. al, who cataloged over 600 of the bubbles and discovered that 75% of the bubbles they looked at were created by type B4-B9 stars, while 0-B3 stars make up the remainder (for more on what these stellar types mean, click here).

A zoomable map that uses images from the surveys – and has labeled a lot of the bubbles that have been already cataloged by the researchers- is available at Alien Earths.

For an extensive treatment of just how important these bubbles are to understanding stars and their formation, the paper “IR Dust Bubbles: Probing the Detailed Structure and Young Massive Stellar Populations of Galactic HII Regions” by Watson, et. al is available here.

If you want to get cracking on drawing bubbles and cataloging interesting features of our Milky Way, take the tutorial and sign up today.

Sources: The Milky Way Project, Arxiv, GLIMPSE

New Galaxy Zoo Project Crowd-sources Old Climate Data

The newest citizen science project from the Galaxy Zoo team lets the public travel back in time and join the crews of over 280 different World War I royal navy warships. While an engaging historical journey, the project will help scientists better understand the climate of the past. There are gaps in weather and climate data records, particularly before 1920, prior to when weather station observations were accurately recorded. But old naval ships routinely recorded the weather they encountered – marking down temperatures and conditions even while in battle. The information in many of these weather logbooks has not been utilized – until now, as the “Old Weather” project has made its debut as the newest way for the public to contribute in scientific research.

The project is designed to provide a detailed map of the world’s climate around 100 years ago, which will help tell us more about the climate today. Anyone can take part, read the logs, follow events aboard the vessels and contribute to this fun and historical project, which could tell us more about our climate’s future.

“These naval logbooks contain an amazing treasure trove of information but because the entries are handwritten they are incredibly difficult for a computer to read,’ said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, a Galaxy Zoo founder and developer of the project. “By getting an army of online human volunteers to retrace these voyages and transcribe the information recorded by British sailors we can relive both the climate of the past and key moments in naval history.”

By transcribing information about weather, and any interesting events, from images of each ship’s logbook web volunteers will help scientists to build a more accurate picture of how our climate has changed over the last century, as well as adding to our knowledge of this important period of British history.

HMS Acacia, one of the ships in the Old Weather project.

“Historical weather data is vital because it allows us to test our models of the Earth’s climate,”said Dr. Peter Stott, Head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the British meteorology, or Met Office. “If we can correctly account for what the weather was doing in the past, then we can have more confidence in our predictions of the future. Unfortunately, the historical record is full of gaps, particularly from before 1920 and at sea, so this project is invaluable.”

Weather observations by Royal Navy sailors were made every four hours without fail, said Dr. Robert Simpson of Oxford University, who added that this project is almost like “launching a weather satellite into the skies at a time when manpowered flight was still in its infancy.”

What is Old Weather from National Maritime Museum on Vimeo.

If you are not yet familiar yet with the Zooniverse, which includes citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo, you are really missing out on a fun and engaging way to do actual, meaningful science. In those projects, 320,000 people have made over 150 million classifications and published several scientific papers – which shown that ordinary web users can make observations that are as accurate as those made by experts.

Old Weather is unique among the eight scientific projects encompassed by the Zooniverse because of how old the data is, and participating really is a trip back in time. The ‘virtual sailors’ visiting are rewarded for their efforts by a rise through the ratings from cadet to captain of a particular ship according to the number of pages they transcribe. Historians are also hoping that a look into these old records will provide a fresh insight into naval history and encourage people to find out more about the past.

Here’s a tutorial on how to participate in Old Weather:

Old Weather – Getting Started from The Zooniverse on Vimeo.

To find out more, and participate visit There’s also an Old Weather blog at

You can also follow the project on Twitter (@OldWeather) and Facebook.

Citizen Science Goes to the Moon


Have you ever wanted to explore the Moon? Well, now you can as a virtual astronaut, and you can help lunar scientists answer important questions, as well. New from the Zooniverse — from the same folks that brought you Galaxy Zoo — is Moon Zoo. “We’re asking citizen scientists to help answer different aspects of lunar science and outstanding questions that we still have,” said Dr. Katherine Joy from the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a Moon Zoo science team member.

Moon Zoo uses about 70,000 high resolution images gathered by the NASA’s newest lunar spacecraft. the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. In these images are details as small as 50 centimeters (20 inches) across, and ‘Zooites’ are will be asked to catergorize craters, boulders and more, including lava channels and even all sorts of different spacecraft sitting on the Moon’s surface.

How fun is this latest Zoo project?

“Actually, I have to say after a few days of playing with it I find it much more addictive than the others,” said Chris Lintott, head “zookeeper” of the Zooniverse and chair of the Citizen Science Alliance. “Galaxy Zoo was bad enough but I’m obsessed with the Moon now. I can’t quite believe the variety of the places we’re seeing. People think the Moon is this boring place – they say, ‘we know what it looks like, it’s just grey and flat, right?’ But actually it has its own landscape that is really quite dramatic, especially when the sun is low, so it’s a world well worth exploring.”

Want to join in? Go to the Moon Zoo website, and if you’ve participated any of the previous Galaxy Zoo or Solar Storm Watch projects, you can use the same username and password. If not, it’s easy to sign up.

Under the “How to Take Part” tab you’ll find a tutorial that will teach you how to participate in Moon Zoo.

The two main biggest tasks right now are the Crater Survey, where you can mark all the craters (down to a certain size), and Boulder Wars, where you are shown two images and you determine which has the most boulders.

But Dr. Joy said there will soon be some additional tasks, created from a wish list from lunar scientists. “One of the main tasks we really want to do is to compare these new LRO images to older Apollo panoramic camera images that were taken 40 years ago,” she said. “And what we can do is match these older images against the new images with similar lighting conditions and similar angles at which the camera was pointed at the surface and what we might be able to do is to spot differences that have occurred between 40 years ago and now, which could be in the form of say, new impact craters that have formed from incoming bolides. We might be able to spot new debris flows and landslides that have happened in the past 40 years. This can provide us information about the really recent history of the Moon.”

Questions? There’s a FAQ section and a discussion forum where you can pose queries or discuss any issues or interesting finds with other Zooites.

“We’re hoping to reach out to people that have never really looked at the Moon before in any kind of detail and get them excited about all the secrets the Moon still has,” said Dr. Joy “because there are plenty of new things that people have never looked at before.”

Listen to the May 19, 2010 edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast for an interview with Katie Joy and Chris Lintott.

New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch


Sun-worshiper alert! Now you can have the chance to help scientists spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research. The ‘hottest’ new Citizen Science project from the “Zooniverse” is Solar Storm Watch. Volunteers can spot storms and track their progress as they hurtle across space towards our planet. Your “clicks” and input will help solar scientists better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth. “The more people looking at our data, the more discoveries we will make,” said Dr. Chris Davis, Project Scientist with the STEREO mission. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”

Solar Storm Watch has been in Beta testing for about two months, but is now officially open for business. “It’s been wonderful to watch the team get ready for a flood of data,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse — new citizen science projects that that use the Galaxy Zoo model — of which Solar Storm Watch is a part. ” I’m sure there are discoveries there already.”

“I’ve been sitting at my desk watching the results roll in and there are plenty of CMEs that just need a few more clicks,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of Zooniverse, who has helped solar astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich integrate their science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model.

STEREO spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. STEREO’s two wide-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometers from the Earth to the Sun.

“The Solar Stormwatch website has a game-like feel without losing any of the science,” said Julia Wilkinson, Solar Stormwatch volunteer. “I can click away identifying features and watch solar storms head towards Earth on the video clips and learn about solar science at the same time. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s educational and you get to contribute to real astronomy research without being an expert in astrophysics … The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighboring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like. Solar astronomy has never been easier!”

Solar Storm Watch has made their project very interactive with social media, as you can share your discoveries on the user forum and Flickr, as well as follow the space weather forecast on Twitter. SSW also has a blog to shre the latest news and challenges.

To participate, go to the Solar Storm Watch website. You can get a “Mission Briefing”, or watch informative videos on why the solar science community needs you!

Sources: Royal Observatory, Zooniverse