It is my pleasure to announce the launch of a brand new Zooniverse project: Galaxy Nurseries. By taking part in this project, volunteers will help us measure the distances of thousands of galaxies, using their spectra. Before I tell you more about the new project and the fascinating science that you will be helping with, I have an announcement to make. Galaxy Nurseries is actually the 100th Zooniverse project, and we’re launching it in the year that Galaxy Zoo (the project that started the Zooniverse phenomenon) celebrates its 10 year anniversary. We can’t think of a better birthday present than a brand new galaxy project!
To celebrate these watersheds in the histories of the Zooniverse and Galaxy Zoo, we’re issuing a special challenge. Can you complete Galaxy Nurseries – the 100th Zooniverse project – in just 100 hours? We think you can do it. Prove us right!
Back to the science! What is Galaxy Nurseries? The main goal of this new project is to discover thousands of new baby galaxies in the distant Universe, using the light they emitted when the Universe was only half of its current age. Accurately measuring the distances to these galaxies is crucial, but this is not an easy task! To measure distances, images are not sufficient, and we need to analyze galaxy spectra. A spectrum is produced by decomposing the light that enters a telescope camera into its many different colors (or wavelengths). This is similar to the way that water droplets split white light into the beautiful colors of a rainbow after a storm.
The data that we use in this project come from the WISP survey. The “WISP” part stands for WFC3 IR Spectroscopic Parallel. This project uses the Wide Field Camera 3 carried by the Hubble Space Telescope to capture both images and spectra of hundreds of regions in the sky. These data allow us to find new galaxies (from the images) and simultaneously measure their distances (using the spectra).
How do we do that? We need to identify features called “emission lines” in galaxy spectra. Emission lines appear as peaks in the spectrum and are produced when the presence of certain atomic elements in a galaxy (for example oxygen, or hydrogen), cause it to emit light much more strongly at a specific wavelength. The laws of physics tell us the exact wavelengths at which specific elements produce emission lines. We can use that information to tell how fast the galaxy is moving away from us by comparing the color of the emission line we actually measure with the color we know it had when it was produced. In the same way that the Doppler effect changes the apparent pitch of an ambulance’s siren as it approaches or recedes, the apparent color of an emission line depends on the speed of the galaxy that produced it. Then, we can relate the speed of the receding galaxy to how far it is from us through Edwin Hubble’s famous law.
The real trick is finding the emission line features in the galaxy spectra. Like many modern scientific experiments, we have written computer code that tries to identify these lines for us, but because our automatic line finder is only a machine, the code produces many bogus detections. It turns out that the visual processing power and critical thinking that human beings bring to bear is ideally suited for filtering out these bogus detections. By helping us to spot and eliminate the false positives, you will help us find galaxies that are some of the youngest and smallest that have ever been discovered. In addition, we can use your classifications to create a next-generation galaxy and line detection algorithm that is much less susceptible to being fooled and generating spurious detections. All your work will also be very valuable for the new NASA WFIRST telescope and for the ESA/NASA Euclid mission, which both will be launched in the coming decade.
Emission lines in a galaxy’s spectrum can tell us about much more than “just” its distance. For example, the presence of hydrogen and oxygen lines tells us that the galaxy contains very young, newborn stars. Only these stars are hot enough to warm the surrounding gas to sufficiently high temperatures that some of these lines appear. By examining emission lines we can also learn what kind of elements were already present and in what relative proportions. We too are “star-stuff”, and by looking at these young galaxies we are following the earliest formation of the elements that make all of us.