Space fans can today play a cosmic slot machine to help astronomers understand the biggest pile-ups in the universe. A new website produced by scientists at Oxford and in the US lets the “gamblers” bring up photos of dramatic collisions between galaxies.
Astronomers say the “game” will deliver them the real prize of learning how these cities of stars form and evolve. They want to know why some, like our own Milky Way, come with spiral arms and others are like compact balls.
Volunteers are being asked to match real photos of colliding galaxies with computer-generated simulations, like matching the fruits on a one-armed bandit.
It is the latest imaginative project dreamed up by Galaxy Zoo – a campaign to involve citizen scientists in cutting-edge research.
Galaxy Zoo has already paid dividends from involving ordinary people in scientific discovery. Around 250,000 volunteers have already identified more than a million previously unclassified galaxies. They even discovered an important new breed of galaxy nicknamed “green peas” plus another type called red spirals.
Organisers say that, surprisingly, humans are much better than computers at spotting the best match between a real galactic merger a simulated image. But their results promise to revolutionise our understanding of these collisions.
Oxford project leader Dr Chris Lintott, a co-presenter of BBC’s The Sky at Night, said: ‘By randomly cycling through the millions of simulated possibilities and selecting only the very best matches they are helping to build up a profile of what kind of factors are necessary to create the galaxies we see in the universe around us – and, hopefully, having fun too!’
Dr John Wallin, of George Mason University, Virginia, said: “You don’t have to be an expert, in fact our evidence shows that not being an expert actually makes you better at this sort of task.
“By reconstructing these collisions, our users will help us understand how galaxies have changed over the history of the universe.”
Galaxy Zoo Mergers goes live today, 24 November, at http://mergers.galaxyzoo.org .
• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.