Citizen science through distributed computing – theSkyNet

Some days ago, at ICRAR, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth, the ICRAR outreach team of which I’m part celebrated the second birthday of its pet project: theSkyNet.

theSkyNet's birthday

theSkyNet’s birthday

No, Judgment Day did not occur and no, machines are not taking over the world – yet.



TheSkyNet is a citizen science project. A way of involving the public in real research, letting them participate in the analysis of data from telescopes observing our Universe. It does so through distributed computing, which basically means that theSkyNet relies on people’s computers – and the more the better – to do its work. Most of us own computers we don’t use to their full potential most of time. TheSkyNet takes advantage of this by using your idle processing power to process data for astronomers.

So why do astronomers want us to do their work for them? Well, it turns out with the advent of technology, computing and networks, telescopes have become bigger, and collect more data. They increasingly work in arrays of dozen of dishes, collecting so much information that astronomers simply don’t have the time or computing power to go through it all. The recently built Murchison Widefield Array in outback Western Australia produces 400MB/s. Imagine having to go through that on your own…So they decided to ask the public for help to work through all this data.

On the 2nd birthday of theSkyNet, we launched a new research project called POGS after months of testing. This new project calls on users to  “process” images of galaxies of the nearby Universe that have been taken by various telescopes around the planet in different wavelengths (in UV, optical, and near infrared). Processing these images gives a wealth of information on the galaxies, including their mass, the amount of interstellar dust they contain, and how fast they form new stars. That’s right, your home computer or laptop can actually help study galaxy properties.

Amount of processing (TFLOPS)

Amount of processing (TFLOPS)

Right now, POGS is doing very well. It is processing over 110 galaxies a day, and 60 new computers are joining the project every day. Eventually, this will be used to create a giant atlas of 100,000 fully characterized galaxies!  And while this would take 10 years to achieve on a mid-level research computer, theSkyNet should do it in 2 to 3 years! That’s the power of citizen science combined with the internet. A huge help for scientists!

But the science bit is not all. To attract users, theSkyNet has also been cleverly designed around the user experience. You get awarded trophies for accumulating credits (the amount of processing), each based on a cool science/geeky fact.

The Copernicus trophy

The Copernicus trophy

The Kirk trophy

Live long and prosper!

You can also work in teams, or alliances as they’re called, to process more and try to climb up at the top of the rankings with friends, colleagues, family, etc.

More and more features get added, like the ability to process data from android devices (that’s right, you can contribute to astronomy research while walking in the street and looking at pictures of cats), or the ability to check your account from iPhones.

But I must say, the coolest feature for me is the ability to visualize actual images of the galaxies you’ve helped process, like this one I processed:

An image of one of the galaxies I've "processed"

An image of one of the galaxies I’ve “processed”.

In bright red the areas of active stellar formation in the galaxy

In bright colours the areas of active stellar formation in the galaxy.

You can neatly see the arms of this spiral galaxy with its bright bulb in the centre. The galaxy is seen from “above”. The second image shows the star formation rate of the galaxy, with the most active areas of star formation in orange to yellow colours. Isn’t that cool?

But that’s not all. You can even see where these galaxies actually are in your sky on any given night using the awesome planetarium software Stellarium (don’t worry, it’s free). So you can now pinpoint your real contribution to science in your sky!

Galaxy locations in the sky

Galaxy locations in the sky

Talk about bragging rights, not only can you show off your knowledge of constellations, you can now also say “See that bright star in constellation XX? Well, there’s a galaxy next to it, and I’m the one who studied it”. Brilliant.

TheSkyNet is a really exciting citizen science project, and the level of engagement is mind-blowing (over 15,000 members). It’s amazing to see how people get engaged just to help and feel like they are contributing to science. Citizen science and distributed computing are revolutionary tools made possible by the internet age. They have the ability to change the way we do science, speeding up discoveries and allowing scientists to study things they couldn’t have done before. It’s an exciting time!

So if you like science, if you like astronomy, and you have a computer connected to internet, you know what to do. Sign up to theSkyNet and help us better our understanding of the Universe! (and get cool pics of galaxies and geeky trophies for it).


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