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Posted: Sep 07, 2015

Volunteer black hole hunters as good as the experts

(Nanowerk News) Trained volunteers are as good as professional astronomers at finding jets shooting from massive black holes and matching them to their host galaxies, research suggests.
Scientists working on citizen science project Radio Galaxy Zoo developed an online tutorial to teach volunteers how to spot black holes and other objects that emit large amounts of energy through radio waves.
The Radio Galaxy Zoo interface
The Radio Galaxy Zoo interface illustrating the three steps required to make a classification. (click on image to enlarge)
Through the project, volunteers are given telescope images taken in both the radio and infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum and asked to compare the pictures and match the “radio source” to the galaxy it lives in.
The results from the first year of the Radio Galaxy Zoo project, led by Dr Julie Banfield of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics and Dr Ivy Wong at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, were published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society ("Radio Galaxy Zoo: host galaxies and radio morphologies derived from visual inspection").
Before unleashing the eager crowd of online volunteers, the research team tested the same 100 images on both the trained citizen scientists and an expert team of ten professional astronomers.
“With this early study we’ve comfortably shown that anyone, once we’ve trained them through our tutorial, are as good as our expert panel,” Dr Banfield said.
“The volunteers have already ‘eyeballed’ more than 1.2 million radio images from the Very Large Array in New Mexico and CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, and infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer and WISE Space Telescopes."
A narrow-angled tail radio galaxy
A narrow-angled tail radio galaxy, where the bi-conical jets have been bent back somehow.
In one year, the citizen scientists managed to match 60,000 radio sources to their host galaxy—a feat that would have taken a single astronomer working 40 hours a week roughly 50 years to complete.
“In the upcoming all-sky radio surveys, we are expecting 70 million sources—10 per cent of which will not be classifiable by any of the computer algorithms currently available,” Dr Wong said.
"These 10 per cent will have weird and complex structures that need a human brain to interpret and understand rather than a computer program.”
"We have asked our volunteers to identify 170,000 radio sources that are most likely to have unusual structures using current datasets, so we are better prepared for what we could find in the upcoming next generation radio surveys.”
At Radio Galaxy Zoo, professional astronomers talk to the participants every day on a dedicated forum and often ask them to look out for objects of interest.
“One member of the Radio Galaxy Zoo science team in Mexico loves looking for ‘giants’—jets longer than a megaparsec, or about 125 times the distance from Earth to the centre of the Milky Way. These are typically very, very old radio jets,” Dr Wong said.
Source: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research
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