NewsNational News

Actions

Researchers asking for public's help to create 'map of the universe'

Many of us rely on our smartphones every day to get around, as we use map apps to help us navigate to unfamiliar places. Now, imagine building a similar app – but for outer space. One group of researchers is embarking on an undertaking that is out of this world.
Through an app called "Zooniverse" – or by logging on with a computer – anyone can join Dark Energy Explorers, part of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). After a brief online tutorial, anyone can look at images captured by the team's telescope and identify what they are.
So far, 11,000 volunteers in 85 countries have made nearly 4 million classifications and identified 250,000 galaxies through "Dark Energy Explorers."
How vast is the universe? Could you draw a map of it? It may sound like an impossible task, but one team is trying to do just that. It does require a lot of eyeballs, though, so they're turning to the public for help – and anyone can join in.
Posted at 12:39 PM, Feb 01, 2023

AUSTIN, TX - The cosmos seemingly stretches on to infinity, and stunning images of it are captured by powerful telescopes. While our solar system is pretty well mapped out, the rest of the universe is not.

Enter a team of researchers led by astronomy professor Karl Gebhardt.

"The one thing that I love about astronomy is that it allows us to step outside of our daily lives and look at the bigger picture for where we came from," said Gebhardt, who leads Dark Energy Explorers, a research project based at the University of Texas in Austin.

Their goal is to create the first map of the universe.

"This is a huge experiment," he said.

So much so, they're turning to the public for help.

Isaiah Pipkin is an undergraduate, who is double-majoring in astronomy and physics and working on the project.

"Since they did a blind survey of the sky, we have millions of sources that are unclassified," Pipkin said.

Through an app called Zooniverse or by logging on with a computer, anyone can join Dark Energy Explorers, part of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX).

After a brief online tutorial, anyone can look at images captured by the team's telescope and identify what they are.

"Could be a star, a meteor, a black hole, an actual galaxy; it could be a non-source,” Pipkin said. “And so, that's why we need all the involvement because we just have so many."

"With each of the sources, we want to have about 10 to 15 individuals each vote on them,” Gebhardt said. “So, then we can average their votes together."

That work will eventually flesh out a map of the universe, but there are millions of images that need to be looked at.

"It's not just something we're doing to show them the images,” said Ph.D. candidate Lindsay House. “They're actually helping us make this map of the universe."

In most cases, House said, the person looking at the image is the first human to ever lay eyes on it.

"Every single galaxy that the public sees on Dark Energy Explores is the first look at this galaxy,” House said.

So far, 11,000 volunteers in 85 countries have made nearly 4 million classifications and identified 250,000 galaxies.

However, the team said they need about 10 times that many people to get it all done—work that could eventually help answer some questions like why the universe is expanding more rapidly and why gravity works the way it does.

"It is a very big picture," Gebhardt said. “You know, we're completely insignificant in the scale of the universe, but perhaps to have us come together and to make this fundamental understanding. I love that."