It’s not every day you get a mysterious new celestial object named after you. But that’s what happened to Hanny van Arkel (pictured below), a primary schoolteacher from The Netherlands. And all she had to do was point and click.
Van Arkel discovered a glowing green gaseous object, which scientists dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (Dutch for “Hanny’s object,” pictured at right). It was an early success from the Galaxy Zoo project, one of the biggest-ever collaborations between scientists and citizens. Participants are volunteers, like van Arkel, who have used the web site www.galaxyzoo.org (now located at zoo1.galazyzoo.org) to analyze celestial objects from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).
The project started up in 2007. In 2008, Galaxy Zoo produced results with real scientific value. Now here comes Galaxy Zoo 2, which debuts today (February 16) at www.galaxyzoo.org.
In the first phase of Galaxy Zoo, project scientists chose 1 million galaxy images from the SDSS database and asked people to decide whether a galaxy was spiral or elliptical and which way it was rotating. The new Galaxy Zoo asks them to look in more detail at 250,000 of the brightest galaxies and spot strange and unusual characteristics.
Galaxy Zoo hoped to recruit 30,000 volunteers. But after only a year, more than 150,000 people from all over the world had signed up. In the last 18 months, armchair astronomers have submitted 80 million different classifications of 1 million objects. Some single-handedly notched tens of thousands of contributions.
Ultimately, the project’s power lies in the human mind’s natural software. “The human brain is actually better than a computer at pattern-recognition tasks like this,” says Kevin Schawinski, an astronomer at Yale University who helped create Galaxy Zoo.
Dozens of research projects are in progress using Galaxy Zoo data. One can only wonder what kind of strange cosmic voorwerps await discovery by the next crop of Hanny van Arkels.