My wife will tell you that I'm a "diddler" — I love to fuss and fidget with digital photos and illustrations to get them just right. So when I found out about a new citizen-science effort called the Milky Way Project, I was immediately hooked.
The concept is simple. Astronomer Robert Benjamin (University of Wisconsin, Whitewater) and the Zooniverse team want you to help them locate bubble-shaped cosmic blobs lurking in infrared images acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
(Technically, these were taken for the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire, or GLIMPSE, and for the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey, or MIPSGAL — but you already know my feelings toward these overcooked acronyms. However, I digress.)
By using simple graphic tools, you draw bubbles on the images to mark the size and shape of interesting features that you find. Besides bubbles, you can spot and tag glowing knots of gas, little star clusters, "fuzzy red objects," and other denizens of the Milky Way's stellar birthplaces. "We're asking you to help us map star formation in our galaxy," says the project's website.
A few years ago four researchers used the GLIMPSE images to find 600 bubbles in a proof-of-concept effort. The experience gained from those first finds have fine-tuned the search strategy, and the hope is that unleashing the Zooniverse community (350,000 participants and counting) will turn up vastly more in the full set of survey images. And there's a lot of real estate to cover: GLIMPSE, for example, involves more than 440,000 images that wallpaper about 85% of the Milky Way's central plane.
So why not give it a try? At least check out the online tutorial to see what 's involved — and prepare to be sucked in!