over 5,000 bubbles have been found, but there are many more out there awaiting discovery. Now there is a project that you can take part in yourself, to help find more of these intriguing objects.
The Milky Way Project, part of Zooniverse, has been cataloguing these cosmic bubbles thanks to assistance from the public, or “citizen scientists” – anyone can help by examining images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, specifically the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL).
They have been seen before, but now the task is to find as many as possible in the newer, high-resolution images from Spitzer. A previous catalogue of star bubbles in 2007 listed 269 of them. Four other researchers had found about 600 of them in 2006. Now they are being found by the thousands. As of now, the new catalogue lists 5,106 bubbles, after looking at almost half a million images so far. As it turns out, humans are more skilled at identifying them in the images than a computer algorithm would be. People are better at pattern recognition and then making a judgment based on the data as to what actually is a bubble and what isn’t.
The bubbles form around hot, young massive stars where it is thought that the intense light being emitted causes a shock wave, blowing out a space, or bubble, in the surrounding gas and dust.
Eli Bressert, of the European Southern Observatory and Milky Way Project team member, stated that our galaxy ”is basically like champagne, there are so many bubbles.” He adds, ”We thought we were going to be able to answer a lot of questions, but it’s going to be bringing us way more questions than answers right now. This is really starting something new in astronomy that we haven’t been able to do.”
There are currently about 35,000 volunteers in the project; if you would like to take part, you can go to The Milky Way Project for more information.
Score another one for citizen science! In a study released just days ago, a new catalog containing over five thousand infrared bubble entries was added through the “Milky Way Project” website. The work was done independently by at least five participants who measured parameters for position, radius, thickness, eccentricity and position angle. Not only did their work focus on these areas, but the non-professionals were responsible for recovering the locations of at least 86% of additional bubble and HII catalogs. Cool stuff? You bet. Almost one third of the Milky Way Project’s studied bubbles are located at the edge of an even larger bubble – or have more lodged inside. This opens the door to further understanding the dynamics of triggered star formation!
Just what is the Milky Way Project? Thanks to the Galaxy Zoo and Zooniverse, scientists have been able to enlist the help of an extensive community of volunteers able to tackle and analyze huge amounts of data – data that contains information which computer algorithms might miss. In this case it’s visually searching through the Galactic plane for whole or broken ring-shaped structures in images done by Spitzer’s Galactic Legacy Infrared Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project. Here the bubbles overlap and the structures are so complex that only humans can sort them out for now.
The Milky Way Project Zooniverse Blog
A team of volunteers has pored over observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and discovered more than 5,000 "bubbles" in the disk of our Milky Way galaxy. Young, hot stars blow these bubbles into surrounding gas and dust, indicating areas of brand new star formation.
- Finding Bubbles in the Milky Way
A huge team of volunteers from the general public has poured over observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and discovered more than 5,000 "bubbles" in the disk of our Milky Way galaxy. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Simpson (Oxford University))
- An Audience-Favorite Nebula
If astronomy had its own Academy Awards, then this part of the Milky Way would have been the "Favorite Nebula" pick for 2011. Competing against 12,263 other slices of the sky, this got more votes from the 35,000 volunteers searching for cosmic bubbles than any other location. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin)
Upwards of 35,000 "citizen scientists" sifted through the Spitzer infrared data as part of the online Milky Way Project to find these telltale bubbles. The volunteers have turned up 10 times as many bubbles as previous surveys so far.
"These findings make us suspect that the Milky Way is a much more active star-forming galaxy than previously thought," said Eli Bressert, an astrophysics doctoral student at the European Southern Observatory, based in Germany, and the University of Exeter, England, and co-author of a paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
"The Milky Way's disk is like champagne with bubbles all over the place," he said.
Computer programs struggle at identifying the cosmic bubbles. But human eyes and minds do an excellent job of noticing the wispy arcs of partially broken rings and the circles-within-circles of overlapping bubbles. The Milky Way Project taps into the "wisdom of crowds" by requiring that at least five users flag a potential bubble before its inclusion in the new catalog. Volunteers mark any candidate bubbles in the infrared Spitzer images with a sophisticated drawing tool before proceeding to scour another image.
"The Milky Way Project is an attempt to take the vast and beautiful data from Spitzer and make extracting the information a fun, online, public endeavor," said Robert Simpson, a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy at Oxford University, England, principal investigator of the Milky Way Project and lead author of the paper.
The data come from the Spitzer Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic (MIPSGAL) surveys. These datasets cover a narrow, wide strip of the sky measuring 130 degrees wide and just two degrees tall. From a stargazer's perspective, a two-degree strip is about the width of your index finger held at arm's length, and your arms opened to the sky span about 130 degrees. The surveys peer through the Milky Way's disk and right into the galaxy's heart.
The bubbles tagged by the volunteers vary in size and shape, both with distance and due to local gas cloud variations. The results will help astronomers better identify star formation across the galaxy. One topic under investigation is triggered star formation, in which the bubble-blowing birth of massive stars compresses nearby gas that then collapses to create further fresh stars.
"The Milky Way Project has shown that nearly a third of the bubbles are part of 'hierarchies,' where smaller bubbles are found on or near the rims of larger bubbles," said Matthew Povich, a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at Penn State, University Park, and co-author of the paper. "This suggests new generations of star formation are being spawned by the expanding bubbles."
Variations in the distribution pattern of the bubbles intriguingly hint at structure in the Milky Way. For example, a rise in the number of bubbles around a gap at one end of the survey could correlate with a spiral arm. Perhaps the biggest surprise is a drop-off in the bubble census on either side of the galactic center. "We would expect star formation to be peaking in the galactic center because that's where most of the dense gas is," said Bressert. "This project is bringing us way more questions than answers."
In addition, the Milky Way Project users have pinpointed many other phenomena, such as star clusters and dark nebulae, as well as gaseous "green knots" and "fuzzy red objects." Meanwhile, the work with the bubbles continues, with each drawing helping to refine and improve the catalog.
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