Volunteers are using a Tinder-like app to help build the world's largest 3D map of the cosmos
A group of more than 10,000 amateur astronomers spread out over 85 countries has identified roughly 240,000 galaxies over the last two years.
Now, the Dark Energy Explorers group aims to recruit even more volunteers and take its work to the next level with a project that could shed new light on the mysterious nature of dark energy, a press statement reveals.
To do so, they must help build the most extensive 3D map of the cosmos by using an app that functions surprisingly like the popular dating app Tinder.
Amateur astronomers are building the largest 3D map of the cosmos
The research project, called the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), is based at The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory. Volunteers can sign up for the Dark Energy Explorers and contribute to HETDEX via a smartphone or computer.
The Dark Energy Explorers launched in February 2021. Since then, they have been surveying a region of the sky that includes most of the Big Dipper and is roughly the size of 2,000 full moons. The group's 10,000 volunteers have identified approximately 240,000 galaxies, but that is only about one-tenth of the total number of galaxies they expect to find eventually.
"That's why we need more people," said Karl Gebhardt, a professor of astronomy at UT Austin and project scientist and principal investigator for HETDEX. "If we can get to 100,000 people volunteering, which I think is doable across the world, then we're there in the next year."
The scientists behind the initiative, led by UT Austin graduate student Lindsay House, say the help of volunteers allows them to reduce the time they spend on identifying galaxies by up to 90 percent, freeing them up to spend more of their time on the more challenging science required for the project. The project's ultimate goal is to build the largest 3D cosmos map. The focus will be on galaxies in the early universe to help reveal important clues about dark energy.
"We've tried writing computer code to do this and even used machine learning, but we found the human eye is significantly superior," Gebhardt added. "We were skeptical initially, but we were blown away by the accuracy."
How to become a Dark Energy Explorer
Following a brief tutorial, volunteers are presented with astronomical images taken from a massive survey of more than a million distant galaxies taken by the 11-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas — one of the largest optical telescopes in the world.
The volunteers must then decide whether the objects they see are galaxies or just random noises. Similarly to the popular dating app Tinder, the volunteers pick their choice by swiping either left or right.
"It's really exciting to see how enthusiastic the public is about classifying these galaxies," said Lindsay House, the UT Austin graduate student who leads the project.
The massive volunteer project aims to determine whether dark energy's effects are constant or change over time. Roughly two-thirds of the galaxy is believed to be made up of dark energy, but the scientific community knows very little regarding its makeup. It is measured indirectly via the effect it has on large space objects over massive regions of space. Such large areas make for massive samples, which is where volunteers worldwide can lend a hand. In this case, by swiping left or right for science.
With many scientists still unhappy with the IAU's definition of "planet," it's possible the debate will never be resolved!