Dec 12, 2022 - News

University of Texas astronomers seek help identifying galaxies

A telescope at the McDonald Observatory, with stars swirling overhead.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope in West Texas collects images citizen scientists use to identify galaxies in the Dark Energy Explorers project. Photo: Courtesy of McDonald Observatory/University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas astronomers on a massive galaxy-mapping mission want your intergalactic help.

The beautifully big picture: A research project known as HETDEX, or the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment relies on volunteers to comb through images to identify galaxies.

Why it matters: Professional astronomers are trying to learn more about the mysterious force known as dark energy, which is causing the universe to rapidly expand — but they need a huge sample of distant galaxies to observe dark energy at work.

By the numbers: Since launching in February 2021, more than 10,000 volunteers, known as Dark Energy Explorers, have identified approximately 240,000 galaxies.

  • All those galaxies are packed into a patch of sky that includes most of the Big Dipper.

Yes, but: Scientists say there are a lot more galaxies in that bit of sky — like 10 times as many.

How it works: On a smartphone or computer, volunteers look at astronomical images and decide whether the objects they see are galaxies.

What they're saying: "We've tried writing computer code to do this and even used machine learning, but we found the human eye is significantly superior," Karl Gebhardt, a UT astronomy professor, said. "We were skeptical at first, but we were blown away by the accuracy."

What's next: The aim is to build the largest 3D map of the cosmos, focused on galaxies in the early universe to help reveal clues about dark energy.


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