Citizen Stargazers Found Five Supernovae on Images Taken by SkyMapper

April 28, 2015

Searching through the images taken by the SkyMapper telescope, citizen astronomers found five new supernovae using the Zooniverse platform.

An image of the SN 2012fr supernova outshining its home galaxy. Credit: ANU/SkyMapper Telescope

Computers today are powerful and excellent for going through the vast amount of data collected by telescopes. First, however, they need to learn what to look for. Enter volunteer stargazers!

Using the Zooniverse platform, scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) established a project that involved over 40,000 citizens who helped classify almost 2 million celestial objects and discover at least five new supernovae. Volunteers searched through images filled with stars and galaxies, taken at different points in time by the SkyMapper telescope, at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in central New South Wales, Australia, in order to look for changes between two or more photographs. They looked for supernovae, asteroids, variable stars and anything else that might appear, disappear or change in the time between two images.

"It was a huge success, everyone was really excited to take part," said Dr Richard Scalzo, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "One volunteer was so determined to find a supernova that he stayed online for 25 hours. Unfortunately he didn't find one, but he did find an unusual variable star, which we think might explode in the next 700 million years or so."

The program ran for five days and its results will be used as the basis on which computers will be taught how to independently identify celestial phenomena, supernovae included.

"When a star explodes and becomes a supernova, for approximately a month it shines more brightly than all the billions of other stars in its galaxy put together," added Dr Scalzo. "The wide range of supernovas tells us how different stars evolve and end their lives in different ways. Identifying them is something that human eyes are very good at. It's hard to train a computer to do it. We had five different people classify each object, and for the borderline objects up to 20 people."

Zooniverse platform is run by a team based at the University of Oxford, UK. It hosts many other science projects that involve volunteering citizens eager to help and be a part of science community.

"It was wonderful to work with a survey like SkyMapper," said Professor Chris Lintott, Principal Investigator for Zooniverse and Oxford Professor of Astrophysics. "Our volunteers and the millions of Stargazing Live viewers will have got a real kick from hearing about discoveries made a matter of moments after our project launched. We're looking forward to more collaboration and more discoveries soon."

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