AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at the University of Texas are turning to some rather unusual tech to locate distant galaxies.
“I’ve been calling it Astro Tinder for a long time,” said UT Professor of Astrophysics Karl Gebhardt. Gebhardt is part of the Dark Energy Explorers project, which will map the universe and help scientists understand more about dark energy.
“We’re trying to make this giant map of the universe to understand how the universe is expanding,” Gebhardt said. To map the universe, however, galaxies must be identified.
This is where the dating app tech comes in handy. Computers aren’t as good at identifying galaxies as you’d think, especially ones that are the distant edges of the universe.
“Where our computer code has a really hard time in detecting… the human eye picks it up instantly.”
Using the science platform “Zooniverse,” users can sign up to be a part of the Dark Energy Explorers project. In the project, they’re shown an image of a potential galaxy.
If they LOVE it, they swipe right. If they want to REJECT the image, they swipe left.
Looking for Mr. Galactic Right
Unlike a dating app, where a pretty face and shared hobbies could mean a love match, viewers are looking for something a little different.
“What we’re looking for is a bump, a dot,” Gebhardt said.
Users will see a variety of scans of the potential galaxy. A dark black dot represents a galaxy. However, weird lines or just a bunch of static mean either there’s nothing in the picture or an instrument error occurred.
For instance, while walking us through the process, a thin black line popped up in one of the pictures on Gebhardt’s app.
“What that is, is a cosmic ray. It’s a high-energy, a particle that hit our detector as we are observing, and it just messed up the signal.”
In this case, Gebhardt swiped left.
Each image is shown to multiple users, so don’t worry if you mess up.
So far, using this app the team has identified nearly a quarter million galaxies. They plan to have two million identified by 2024.
Why do we need to map the cosmos?
The Dark Energy Explorers project is part of a larger project known as HETDEX or the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment.
The Dark Energy Explorers Project launched in February of last year with 10,000 participants.
Images are collected by the Hobby-Eberly telescope located at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. Computer code removes many of the images that can easily be called junk, but many images remain.
These are the images users sort through on the “Zooniverse” app.
“All those galaxies are kind of those puzzle pieces that we’re putting together to create this map,” said Lindsay House, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas. House is also the lead on the Dark Energy Explorers project.
“Sometimes we get false detections, and so we want to get those out of our sample, so that we only have those real galaxies left,” House said.
By mapping the cosmos, the team is hoping to have a better understanding of why the universe is expanding. The map will help scientists track the speed with which it is expanding.
“The expansion rate tells us why it’s expanding the way it is,” Gebhardt said.
This “why” is called Dark Energy. According to Gebhardt, around 70% of the universe is made up of dark energy, but nobody knows what it is. They don’t even know if it is energy. “It’s our ignorance for how the universe is expanding.”
“Zooniverse” is the largest amateur science organization in the world. You can participate directly on the group’s website or using the Zooniverse smartphone app. It is free to participate. Just select the Dark Energy Explorers project in the Space category.