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Impressive Citizen Science


Impressive Citizen Science

Alan Duffy

The Milky Way Project First Data Release: A Bubblier Galactic Disk (paper)

R. J. Simpson, M. S. Povich, S. Kendrew, C. J. Lintott, E. Bressert, K. Arvidsson, C. Cyganowski, S. Maddison, K. Schawinski, R. Sherman, A. M. Smith, G. Wolf-Chase


The latest 'citizen science' project to hit the astronomical shelves is a really fun investigation into the HII (ionised hydrogen) bubbles that form around young, ionising stars or Supernovae explosions. The issue here is that they can be very complex shapes as the shock wave around such ionising sources will typically flow around dense interstellar gas. This means that identifying such objects will be difficult for automated systems but easy for humans with our pretty impressive pattern recognition skills. This is the idea of the project - harness the power of people for a problem that we can uniquely solve. 

So that's the fun bit, now why should we care? Well for a start the HII bubble is a measure of the star formation occuring inside it, and if we find all the bubbles then we know how much star formation is ongoing in the Milky Way. Furthermore the size of these bubbles can tell us about the density of the gas it's trying to push as it expands (if we can figure out the luminosity of the ionising source of course). By noting the position of the bubbles on the sky we can figure our where the spiral arms of our galaxy are (not trivial!!) as star formation predominantly occurs in these arms.

Also the shapes of the bubbles are determined by the user (by drawing the extent of the HII bubble) which can be combined with many other users guesses to create a reliable rim giving statistics on the shape/orientation axis and also overlaps of these systems. The biggest science use for such a catalogue is to investigate whether the shock wave from young stars can actually trigger star formation in nearby dense gas clouds (which get compressed by the shock). Watch this space for further work on this..! 

With 35,000 volunteers having catalogued over 5000 bubbles this has been a great success for both science and ensuring that the taxpayer is involved in cutting edge research and hopefully more keen to fund the research... Win win basically.