Star formation is one of the most important processes at work in the cosmos. The atoms that make up our planet and ourselves were made in the centres of stars, billions of year ago. To study star formation is to begin to understand the origin and make-up of the Galaxy and the Universe at large.
The mass distribution of stars and the rate at which they are born determines the nature and evolution of galaxies, such as our own Milky Way Galaxy. To understand many aspects of galaxy evolution, planet formation and cosmology, an understanding of star formation is required. It is one of the most fundamental mechanisms at work in the Universe.
Here at Zooniverse HQ we’ve been looking at how to get involved with the study of star formation for a while now. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that three of us at Zooniverse HQ have a background in star formation research. Chris Lintott, Arfon Smith and myself have all worked in this field and thus have been keen to make this project a reality for some time.
Project 9 is going to be the first Zooniverse contribution to the field of star formation. Project 9 is also going to be the first Zooniverse project to crowd-source more than just the science. We’d like to get opinion and feedback from the Zooniverse community as we develop the project.
Project 9 will be using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, one of the most successful science missions ever put in orbit (which took the stunning image of the Andromeda Galaxy seen above). We’ve been working with the people behind the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE). We think that you all may be able to help us classify some of the structures seen in this data – but more on that in a future post.
Stars form within dark clouds of gas (predominantly hydrogen and helium) and dust (larger molecules that have collected together into grains). They are dark because they absorb visible light. The dust in these star-forming regions absorbs visible light, and reemits it at infrared wavelengths. The result is that if you want to look for stars in the making, you must look in the infrared. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, so to search for star-forming regions you need to use a space-based infrared telescope – like Spitzer.
Infrared images of star-forming regions are often beautiful – you can browse a version of the GLIMPSE data via this link. We have been toying with different colour stretches for the GLIMPSE data to use for Project 9. Amongst the plethora of gorgeous images – from just a small part of the sky – I came across a familiar object: the Eagle Nebula (above). I thought this would give you an idea of the sort of images Project 9 will be asking everybody to help dissect and classify.
We’re looking forward to getting this project off the ground and will be blogging shortly with more details.