Help astronomers find dust disks with new Zooniverse project

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Sunday, February 02, 2014

Citizen scientists can help astronomers find hundreds more debris disks, like this one around Fomalhaut. Such structures are similar to the Kuiper Belt and main asteroid belt in our solar system. // NASA/ESA/UC Berkeley/Goddard/LLNL/JPL
Zooniverse just launched its newest astronomy-related citizen science project: Disk Detective, which involves users scouring images to identify possible dust disks around stars. Such structures could signal a young star with a disk of material that will eventually turn into planets or a mature planetary system with its own Kuiper Belt or asteroid belt.

As a participant, you’ll look at a series of images — a flipbook, really — that shows an object in a range of wavelengths: visible light, near-infrared, and mid-infrared. Dust absorbs (and blocks) visible and shorter-wavelength radiation, like ultraviolet; it emits infrared radiation. This is why astronomers need infrared-detecting telescopes to see dust clouds. So when you look at Disk Detective’s image flipbooks, you’ll first just see a star in visible light (it shows up as a round object). As you flip to the lower-energy wavelengths (infrared), you’ll see a larger blob surrounding that star. If the shape of that blob is a filled-in circle, it might be a dust disk. If instead that blob is elliptical or breaks into two separate blobs of light, it could be a galaxy or something else the astronomers aren’t interested in.

The flipbooks are made up of images from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (visible and some infrared), the Two Micron All Sky Survey (infrared) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer [insert] (infrared).

Disk Detective has some 539,000 objects to study, and it will use the power of the people — as all Zooniverse projects do. The scientists behind the project are hoping that with your help they can identify a few hundred dust disks. “Once we get a list of sources that the citizen scientists agree are really solid disk candidates, we'll start following them up with other ground-based telescopes so we can really be certain,” says NASA’s Marc Kuchner, the principal investigator of Disk Detective and an Astronomy contributor. “Then we'll take the best of the best and apply for time to study them with Hubble, and eventually Webb [the James Webb Space Telescope], when it flies, to try to make images of the disks and whatever exoplanets might be floating in them.”

After just two hours of Disk Detective’s launch, citizen scientists had classified 2,000 objects. So head to the website and start adding to that number.

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