If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a good deal of time dreaming about what it would be like to travel around the galaxy, explore new worlds and encounter new forms of intelligent life. Sadly, that probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The good news is that modern day technology has made it possible for anyone with a computer to become a bona fide armchair astronaut. But that’s not all. Scientists have found a way to use that technology to help you, the citizen scientist, make your own contribution to the growing body of research into outer space. It’s a win-win scenario; you get the chance to check out regions of space that you’ve never seen before, and the scientific community gets to lean on you for some assistance sorting through the myriads of star clusters, galaxies and asteroids that have yet to be discovered or properly classified. So how do you get involved? It’s really quite easy, and there are no prerequisites. You don’t need to earn a degree in astrophysics before jumping right into it.
Back in 2007, a neat little project called Galaxy Zoo was born. Started by the wonderful people over at Zooniverse, Galaxy Zoo gives users the opportunity to scroll through images of different types of galaxies that are still awaiting their appropriate classification. You, the user, are then asked a series of questions about the galaxies you see. Does the galaxy have a bulge in the center? Does it have spiral arms? Can it be viewed “edge-on”? Those are just a few of the questions you’ll get as you move from one image to the next. The answers you and other participants give can help determine the proper classification for each individual galaxy, thus saving scientists from the impossible task of having to go through all the images on their own.
I did a trial run of Galaxy Zoo myself, and I have to admit that I really got a kick out of it. When I finally decided to get up out of my chair and grab a snack, I looked at the clock and saw that nearly two hours had already passed. If you’d like to give it a shot, go check out the website and get started! They’ve also got a blog that covers all the latest news related to the project, and you can check that out here.
If classifying galaxies isn’t exactly your cup of tea, then you should definitely take a glance at the other citizen science projects on Zooniverse. Care for a virtual stroll along the surface of Mars’ southern polar region? Head over to Planet Four, a project that gives users the opportunity to help scientists catalog specific features on Mars’ surface. Want to play hero and possibly save the earth from a devastating asteroid strike? If so, put on your explorer’s hat and head over to Asteroid Zoo! Many of Zooniverse’s projects offer quick, easy-to-understand tutorials for beginners, so there’s no reason to feel discouraged if you don’t have a background in science. If you love outer space, and you’ve got some spare time to kill, you really should check them all out.