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UW Professor Participates in Milky Way Project to Help Uncover Home Galaxy Objects

September 20, 2016
color photo of stars
Chip Kobulnicky, a University of Wyoming physics and astronomy professor, is part of an international team of scientists that will gather data for the Milky Way Project, a citizen science project funded by the National Science Foundation. (NASA Photo)

During the past 12 years, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite observatory have captured sweeping new views of the Milky Way galaxy. However, scientists need assistance from the public to make sense of this new deluge of data.

Chip Kobulnicky, a University of Wyoming physics and astronomy professor, is part of an international team of scientists that will gather data for this citizen science project funded by the National Science Foundation. The Milky Way Project, with more than 2 million classification drawings made by 20,000 citizen scientists, relaunched its website Sept. 15.

The project is part of citizen science, where ordinary citizens help scientists conduct their research, says Kobulnicky, who helped NASA start a large survey, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, in 1999.

The citizen scientists assist professional scientists by making drawings on the images to classify interesting astrophysical phenomena, including interstellar “bubbles” and stellar-wind “bow shocks.” Bow shocks are caused when swift, massive stars -- some traveling at speeds faster than 50,000 miles an hour -- plow through space, causing material to stack up in front of them in the same way that water piles up in front of a ship or a supersonic plane creates a shockwave in front of it. Interstellar bubbles are where a star has blown a cavity in interstellar gases.

“For us here in Wyoming, we are interested in bow shock nebulae and interstellar bubbles,” Kobulnicky says. “We need thousands of students to help us do this. No human could possibly search through this database, but tens of thousands of humans can.”

Some of UW’s doctoral students will complete their dissertations using this data, while many of UW’s undergraduate students will assist with the classifications, he says.

“Wyoming students will get to participate in a worldwide survey using one of NASA’s largest data sets ever,” Kobulnicky says.

To get started, citizen scientists can go to the website https://www.milkywayproject.org. After creating a free Zooniverse user account, citizen scientists will view infrared images that show different parts of the Milky Way galaxy.

“Citizen science is a big thing right now, because it’s a real way for citizens to participate in real science projects,” he explains. “Humans are needed to perform work that computers cannot do. The human brain is good at discerning patterns. It is very difficult to program computers to see different patterns.”

 “We need an additional 2 million classifications to achieve current science goals,” says Matthew Povich, an astronomer at Cal Poly Pomona and lead scientist of the Milky Way Project. “If every one of the 20,000 students at Cal Poly Pomona logged onto our site and made 100 classifications each, we’d be done in no time.”

These classifications help discover some of the most massive stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

“What we hope to produce is a category of interstellar bubbles, bow shocks and other objects that change our view of the Milky Way galaxy,” he says.

For more information about the Wyoming portion of the Milky Way Project, call Kobulnicky at (307) 766-2982 or email chipk@uwyo.edu.


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Chad Baldwin

Institutional Communications

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