Find black holes in space from the comfort of your couch

December 18, 2013

Got a tablet or a laptop? Now you can discover black holes from the comfort of your couch.

An international group of researchers, including astronomers from the University of Minnesota, have launched a new "citizen science" project--called Radio Galaxy Zoo--that allows anyone to become a cosmic explorer.

By matching images of the sky in both infrared and radio wavelengths, users can help identify which galaxies possess active supermassive black holes. The infrared data comes from NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite, while the radio data is from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. Future images in the project will include data from the ATCA and ASKAP telescopes in Australia and from the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope.

A black hole is an object for which gravity is so strong that even light cannot get out. Supermassive black holes drag in nearby material, growing to billions of times the mass of our sun and occasionally producing spectacular jets of material traveling nearly as fast as the speed of light. These jets often can't be detected in visible light, but are seen using radio telescopes.

While this all sounds a little technical, astronomers say getting involved to help identify supermassive black holes is easy.

"It takes about a minute to learn what to do," said Julie Banfield, an Australian coordinator of the international project from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). "Then to actually work with the images takes only a few seconds each--perhaps a couple of minutes for the really tough ones. You just need to match up a couple of pictures and look for what you think is the galaxy at their center."

University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering researchers involved on the Radio Galaxy Zoo science team include physics and astronomy professors Lawrence Rudnick and Lucy Fortson and postdoctoral researcher Kyle Willett.

"Eventually, we will have up to 20 million radio sources that need classifications," Rudnick said. "Computers and a few astronomers can take us only so far. Pattern recognition by large numbers of people will be essential in finding these black holes."

In order to better understand how these black holes form and evolve over time, astronomers need to observe many of them at different stages of their lifecycles. To accomplish this, astronomers need help from the public to identify as many black hole/jet pairs as possible and associate them with their host galaxies. With a large enough sample (from "citizen scientist" classifications), astronomers can pick out black holes at different stages and build a better picture of their origins.

Individuals who choose to participate will be part of a community of almost a million people who work in the "Zooniverse"-- a set of citizen-science projects covering everything from galaxy shapes to cancer data to whale songs.

Both the Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE are operated by NASA, while the VLA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. ATCA and ASKAP are operated by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial and Research Organisation in Australia.
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For more information or to start your classifications, visit radio.galaxyzoo.org.

University of Minnesota

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