Ever fancied yourself as a bit of a galaxy hunter? Ever looked up at the stars and wondered if you are alone out there? Well, never mind the second question, but if you want to help classify over a million galaxies, then Galaxy Zoo could probably use your help.
They have taken photo’s of around a million galaxies (each one contains billions and billions of stars like our own sun…do the maths, it’s not hard to realize there is going to be at least one other ‘Earth’ out there capable of supporting life) and need help classifying them all.
You have to take a short tutorial explaining the different types of galaxies (Eliptical or Spiral) and then have to take a nerve racking test to find out if your galaxy hunting skills are good enough for what they need. If you pass then you are allowed to start classifying real galaxies.
The whole concept of letting people around the world help out with scientific studies is growing in popularity. Classifying the galaxies has been difficult to do with computers because they are not adept at spotting patterns, and getting a few people to so the classification would take time and resources. By letting hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people around the world help out they can complete their study in months rather than years.
NASA used a similar technique a year or so ago when their satelite returned to Earth with cosmic particles and they asked members of the public to analyze tiny sections of the collection tray (but blown up very very big to reveal the tiniest of particles) for particles or anything of interest. The work, which would have taken months was completed in a matter of weeks.
Similar projects that have harnessed the power of a worldwide network are the Seti@Home which uses peoples computers to process thousands of gigabytes of data, the Folding@Home program which analyzes proteins to try and find cures for diseases such as cancer before sending it back and FightAIDS@Home which uses your idle computer time to analyze data before sending it back.
The power of this distributed computing system means that you can do millions of years worth of analysis in the space of a few years.
With the expansion of the internet I’m sure we’ll see a lot more distributed computing and distributed human analysis taking place.