Disk Detective

Disk Detective

Today we’ve launched Disk Detective: a new project that asks you to help scour infrared data from NASA’s WISE spacecraft. WISE is a NASA mission surveying the whole sky in infrared. Disk Detective is backed by a team of astronomers that need your help to look at data of stars to try and find dusty debris disks – similar to our asteroid field. These disks suggest that these stars are in the early stages of forming planetary systems.

Learning more about these stars can tell researchers how our Solar System formed. Computers often confuse debris disks around stars with other astronomical objects. The Disk Detective team need your help to sort out what stars actually have these disks from galaxies and nebulae.

Screenshot Disk Detective

To take part you have to look through flipbook-style sets of images made up of multiple wavelength data from each star. You watch the object change as you move from shorter, optical wavelengths to longer infrared wavelength data. For each star you’re looking at data from multiple surveys and missions taken over many years. Bring all this data together, on the web, is a really cool part of Disk Detective.

There’s lots of data to get through and the science promises to be really interesting. Follow along on the Disk Detective blog, on Twitter and on Facebook too. In the meantime jump on the new site and have a go at www.diskdetective.org.

Thoughts from the Classroom: Thinking of using Galaxy Zoo in your middle school classroom? Do it!

Today’s post comes from Victoria Talkington and kicks of a short series called Thoughts from the Classroom. Victoria is a middle school teacher at GATE Academy.  She and her students recently dove head first into the Zooniverse with Galaxy Zoo by completing over 9,000 classifications (many thanks from the science team)!  Victoria’s students also contacted Galaxy Zoo scientists and developers with their questions.  In today’s post Victoria tells about why she chose to bring Galaxy Zoo into her classroom.  In the coming weeks we’ll also share some her students’ impressions of participating in an online citizen science project as part of the Thoughts from the Classroom series.  Here at Zooniverse we thought is was about time we started listening directly to student perspectives on our projects.

I chose Galaxy Zoo for my middle school class because it’s real science.  It’s hands-on, minds on science, with the thrill of possible discovery.   Galaxy Zoo may seem, to the uninitiated, to be an addictive, time-sink fantasy game, with pretty pictures of dust lanes, swirling gases, and spiral galaxies.  In fact, it is the ultimate cosmology reality show.  Galaxy Zoo packages community involvement, cutting edge research, and classification skills, and draws kids in to a place where they are DOING something meaningful and genuine for all the world.

I’m an educator at GATE Academy, a school for academically gifted kids in Northern California.  My BA at Yale was in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, back in the late 1970’s when biotech was in its infancy.  After a stint at Harvard Law School for my JD, followed by a long career as a trial attorney, and then a decade of volunteer service in complex, multi-party administration arenas,  I started my fourth career in education.  With the internet and handheld devices making content oh-so-cheap, I realized that education has fundamentally changed.

Learning about the stars is not enough.  Kids need chances to do something valuable in the world.  The challenge that science faces today in attracting enthusiastic kids is that we’ve travelled so far.  What happens in labs and research is simultaneously too rarified and too granular to grab a young mind.  There’s too much start up time involved, and the details of the periodic table can seem remarkably dull when there’s MindCraft to play after school.

Galaxy Zoo cuts to the chase and ignites in kids an understanding that there is excitement and discovery out there beyond the pixels of fantasy software.  Galaxy Zoo teaches that everything hasn’t been discovered – there are still galaxies to hunt.  Kids can be Captain Kirk traveling on the Starship Enterprise, for real.  They can go where no human has gone before, looking at distant images, trying to understand what they are, and keeping their own captain’s log of their observations — or simply rely on the strong, slick classification tools of Galaxy Zoo.  Galaxy Zoo enables kids to discover how the hard work of real science opens their minds, and makes them curious about their world.

If I were to suggest starting your a class on Galaxy Zoo, I’d have the kids dive right into classifying with only minimal introduction.  And you know, what they are doing will be puzzling and it won’t make too much sense to them at first.  So, they will start asking questions.  List their questions on a board, but don’t answer them.  Maybe they won’t see the point.  You’ll be able to suggest that they look at the Galaxy Zoo “Story” for homework.  They’ll read it — and a couple of kids will “get” what the adventure is.  You can talk together about it at the next class– what do the kids think they are doing?  Guide them into understanding that they are helping to figure out how galaxies form, and that this thing, this task that they are involved in, is how true discovery and scientific work takes place –  image by image, galaxy by galaxy, categorization by categorization.  How many classifications do they think they can achieve over the duration of your term?  Set a goal.  And gently, as your kids become more and more engrossed in Galaxy Zoo classifying, you can start introducing readings on galaxies.  Little current news items from, say Scientific American or Science News.  Somehow, suddenly, what would have been dry content for most of the class, greeted by groans or (worse),  becomes material that most of them are interested in.  They might even start doing Galaxy Zoo classifications at home . . . instead of MineCraft.  Who knows?  A new Captain Kirk might be discovered in your classroom.  Teaching for the stars.

A Change in the Weather

Today’s guest blog comes from Kathy Wendolkowski. Kathy contacted the Zooniverse development group at the Adler Planetarium asking for some some education materials relating to Zooniverse and online citizen science she could share with policy makers in her school district.  We had a great conversation about using Zooniverse projects for student service learning requirements.  Kathy is an Old Weather project volunteer since 2010.  She has 3 children, one currently a sophomore in high school.  

Well, I have been on the phone for 30 minutes and now I have a headache.  I have been speaking to a very nice young woman, but it seems she is the brick wall against which I have been banging my head.  I live in Montgomery County, Maryland which has one of the best school systems in the nation.  This school system is one that requires what are known as “Student Service Learning Hours” for graduation.  SSL hours involve some form of community service, and this summer I had what I consider to be a brilliant idea – Zooniverse projects would make perfect SSL opportunities, which has led me to my headache.

The standards for SSL hours in the Montgomery County Public School system were developed 15 years ago.  These standards do not even conceive of something like the Zooniverse.  To make this happen under the current standards for SSL projects, I need a sponsoring non-profit organization, a public place to meet, and most importantly, liability insurance.  Phew… it seems I have to change the idea of what is a SSL project.  It is a good thing that I love a challenge.

I do not mean to disparage current SSL projects – any form of service is a good thing, and knowledge can come from many different sources.  The Zooniverse, though, is an ideal example of what service and learning can be.  Here, you can help find a cure for cancer or discover a new planet.  You can read the actual ships’ logs or diary entries of servicemen fighting in World War I.  I am rendered speechless (a rare occurrence!) at the opportunities for Service and Learning offered by the Zooniverse.  So, I will take two aspirin and start phoning in the morning.  (Hey, I wonder if I can get SSL hours for this project?)

Operation War Diary is a go!!!


Great news everyone! The Zooniverse has teamed up with the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives to bring you an awesome new project called Operation War Diary. It involves the transcription of over one million battlefield notes produced from the western front during the World War I. This year marks the centenary of the start of the war and this project will bring to light information that had been all but lost over the last one hundred years. Get involved here http://www.operationwardiary.org/

You can read more about the project in this blog post, and you can follow it on Facebook and Twitter too!

Stargazing Live: The Results Are In

The Lovell Telescope observing 9io9: a candidate lens spotted by volunteers on Space Warps.

BBC Stargazing Live 2014 has been asking people to visit the Zooniverse’s Space Warps site to identify gravitational lenses: extremely rare events caused by one galaxy passing in front of another (very distant) galaxy. Tens of thousands of you have taken part and classified more than 6.5 million images.

Your classifications have already led to the discovery of more than 50 potential gravitational lenses! Amongst them are several beautiful and interesting discoveries. You can see a few of our favourite candidates above. For Stargazing Live’s third and final show we have focussed on the spectacular red arc/ring shown below, it has been nicknamed 9io9 by the team right now, because of it’s Zooniverse ID. You can see more of what our volunteers are saying about it here on Talk.

Credit: Jim Geach / VICS82
Credit: Jim Geach / VICS82

The Space Warps team have produced a model of it and currently think the background (red) galaxy is at redshift of about 2, which means the light has taken more than 10 billion years to reach us! You can see the comparison of the model and the data below. There’s a chance it could be further away but we’ll keep you posted. The nearer object (white/yellow) is about 2 billion light years away and has a mass of 100 billion times that of our Sun – which makes it about the same size as our own galaxy.

Comparison of the model (left) and real (right) data.

We know all this because we have spent the last 24 hours calling in every favour we have worldwide. The Space Warps science team, and various Zooniverse scientists from other projects, have been literally asking favours from people using the world’s biggest telescopes. We were even able to get some time on the massive Keck telescope in Hawai’i, where astronomers were having to break ice off the dome to get data. Astronomers love a good challenge!

Of course Stargazing Live is filmed at Jodrell Bank, home to one of the world’s largest radio dishes: the Lovell Telescope. This candidate lens is perfect for a radio observation – which can tell us more about its mass and position in space – and I’m excited to say that the giant dish is observing the target as I write!

Space Warps has been a huge success over the past three days and the project continues! Every classification on Space Warps helps our computers understand the whole data set, and so in a way all the objects discovered on Space Warps are the result of everybody’s combined work. You can keep up to date with news from Space Warp via the project’s blog, Twitter and Facebook sites.

A huge thank you to the BBC crew, the Jodrell Bank team, the Space Warps scientists, developers and moderators, and to everyone that took part this week. Keep clicking!

Space Warps for BBC Stargazing Live

This week is the BBC’s Stargazing Live show: three now-annual nights of live stargazing and astronomy chatter, live from Jodrell Bank. In 2012 we asked the Stargazing Live viewers to help us discover a planet with Planet Hunters, in 2013 we explored the surface of Mars with Planet Four. This year we are inviting everybody to use our Space Warps project to discover some of most beautiful and rare objects in the universe: gravitational lenses.

Space Warps launched last year and originally the project asked everyone to spot gravitationally lensed features in optical images from the CFHT Legacy Survey. We’re still busy processing the data but you seem to have found lenses – including the three shown at the top of this post! For Stargazing Live we’re adding a whole new dataset of infrared images, which has not been deeply searched for lenses before. We’re also now working with ’targeted’ data. This means that we are only showing images containing objects in them that could either be lenses, or would be interesting if they were being lensed. So your odds of finding something amazing have really gone up!

Screenshot of Space Warps

Gravitational lenses occur when a massive galaxy – or cluster of galaxies – pass in front of more distant objects. The enormous mass of the (relatively) closer object literally bend light around them and distort the image of the distant source. Imagine holding up a magnifying glass and waving it around the night sky so that starlight is bent and warped by the lens. You can see more about this here on the ESO website.

We’re blogging right now from Jodrell Bank (the dish is looking lovely BTW) and the Stargazing Live set and everyone here is buzzing with the idea that we might find some gravitational lenses that have never been seen before! Good luck, and happy classifying. Even K9 is excited.