Undead astro-photos are being reanimated—by you

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Mar 27, 2017

Imagine finding something strange in an image of the universe from another era. Now imagine it leads to an unprecedented discovery. Astronomy Rewind wants exactly that to happen—which is why it’s resurrecting tens of thousands of images that science had previously pronounced dead.

Powered by the Zooniverse platform that has hosted over 50 crowdsourced science projects, and in collaboration with the Astrophysics Data System (ADS) this new program lets you be an insta-astronomer by making them available online to compare with recent telescope data. Skeptical that you could bring something stellar (or planetary, or … you get the point) to light? Over a hundred peer-reviewed scientific publications have surfaced thanks to millions of volunteers studying billions of images via Zooniverse.  

"You simply couldn't do a project like this in any reasonable amount of time without 'crowdsourcing,'" said AAS Director of Publishing Julie Steffen, who is optimistic about what this project could unearth. "Astronomy Rewind will breathe new life into old journal articles and put long-lost images of the night sky back into circulation, and that's exciting.”

Astronomy Rewind raises astro-photographs, radio maps, and American Astrophysical Society (AAS) journal images from the catacombs of long-forgotten archives and file cabinets. It then brings them back to life by incorporating them into digital sky atlases and catalogs so they can be placed in context. These images can then be accessed from wherever you have Wi-fi. You’ll be subjected to a preliminary exercise to narrow down what exactly you’re looking for, and then you’ll have the virtual key to an entire universe of information dating from the 19th century all the way through the mid-1990s, when the AAS started publishing online.

So what exactly should you be searching for in these snapshots of space? After examining photos of celestial objects (with or without coordinates that tell you where exactly they are in the sky) and planetary maps (which also may or may not include latitudinal and longitudinal grids), you determine the types of images displayed on each page. Bonus: you’re not alone. Digital pages are each reviewed by five other program participants, and the more parallels there are between other citizen-astronomers’ opinions on what appears on any given page, the greater the chance that conclusion is accurate.  

Scientists are seeking images that can have their scale, orientation and position in the sky confirmed by image labels and additional details that are either captioned or provided in additional text. Older pictures that often have gaps in this type of information will be analyzed by Astrometry.net, an automated online service that determines what area of the sky has been captured in a photo by using star catalogs as a basis of comparison for the astro-photos.

While the thought of being part of a space discovery might seem far-out, it really isn’t as distant a possibility as you may think. Thousands “zombie” images will have new life breathed into them as they are classified into the data repositories of NASA and other international space agencies. They will also be made viewable in Worldwide Telescope, the AAS’ super-powered data-visualization instrument that is a virtual atlas of the sky. If enough volunteers drop their Pokemon Go for Astronomy Rewind, at least a thousand pages of information resurfacing from the past could be processed every day. The scientists behind Astronomy Rewind acknowledge that even the most advanced machines miss and confuse things that human brains can process much more clearly. Take that, artificial intelligence.

"There's no telling what discoveries await," project founder Alyssa Goodman, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said. "Turning historical scientific literature into searchable, retrievable data is like turning the key to a treasure chest."

(via Phys.org)