Astronomers ask public to help identify star clusters
Andromeda Project • Website images could help scientists understand how galaxies formed.
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Astronomers want the public's help to explore our nearest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda.

The recently launched Andromeda Project will provide thousands of Hubble Space Telescope images of the galaxy, allowing everyone from professional astronomers to accountants on lunch breaks to identify star clusters and help scientists understand how galaxies evolved.

"We'll definitely have some astronomy buffs, but hopefully there are a lot of people who, rather than looking at Facebook, will do this in their down time," said Anil Seth, an organizer of the Andromeda Project and an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah.

The project will have about 10,000 images, and astronomers are hoping to have each image viewed and analyzed about 20 times.

"There are lots of images, so we're going to need a lot of volunteers," Seth said.

Star clusters, Seth said, are not difficult to identify because of their distinct patterns. After a small amount of training, volunteers have been able to identify clusters within 20 seconds of viewing a photo on the Andromeda Project website, www.andromedaproject.org. A tutorial on the website helps volunteers understand how to identify and mark star clusters.

The new website was designed after eight scientists spent more than a month each searching through 20 percent of the available Hubble images. They found 600 star clusters, which are less than a quarter of the 2,500 star clusters astronomers believe exist in the images.

Computer software that recognizes patterns struggles to find star clusters, so astronomers devised a plan to crowdsource the photos.

"You don't need to know anything about astronomy to participate, and it's actually pretty fun, like playing an online game," said Cliff Johnson, a University of Washington graduate student working on the project.

The age of star clusters are easy to determine, making them an important way to study a galaxy's history. Astronomers determine a star cluster's age by the mass of its brightest, most massive stars.

"Massive stars are like rock stars: they live fast and die young," Seth said.

The project, once completed, will create the largest sample of clusters in any spiral galaxy, including the Milky Way, Seth said.

smcfarland@sltrib.com

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The Andromeda Project

Anil Seth will discuss the project at Science Night Live 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Keys on Main, 242 S. Main St. The lecture is free but attendees must be age 21 or older.