Environment & Science

Cal Poly Pomona needs your help mapping the Milky Way

The Milky Way over Joshua Tree National Park.
The Milky Way over Joshua Tree National Park.
Photograph by NPS/Brad Sutton (via Joshua Tree National Park on Flickr)

Your dreams of being an astronomer or space-faring adventurer might not be so far-fetched after all.

Cal Poly Pomona is looking for help mapping out the unfathomable Milky Way. It's easier than you might think — no degree or telescope necessary. 

The Milky Way Project is open to anybody with a passion for the celestial abyss. The five-year-old project gives folks a chance to help catalog and analyze thousands of infrared images of the galaxy taken by two high-powered telescopes and identify objects within them. 

Typically, a trained eye or computer would take on these task, but the eyes of the general public are just as good — and sometimes even better, said Matthew Povich, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Cal Poly Pomona. He's the project lead now and has been involved since it's inception at the end of 2010. A computer's eye can only do so much, he said. 

"These patterns that we’re looking for are very complicated patterns and it remains the case that the human eye and brain [are] better at recognizing patterns than our machines tend to be,” Povich told KPCC.

Still sound intimidating? It's easier than you might think. 

Trekking through our galaxy 

Participants are served up random images of the Milky Way that Povich took himself using the Spitzer Space Telescope. They're asked to look for three main things: bubble nebulae, bow shocks and yellow balls. 

The project team has put together tutorials on their site that show you what kinds of patterns to look for and walk you through the process for marking them. Here's what they might look like:


Courtesy of The Milky Way Project

Bubble nebulae generally look like a green or yellow ring, often with some red glow on the inside, Povich said. A special drawing tool allows them to draw an ellipse over the celestial being. That lets them measure the size, shape and location. 

Bow shocks 

Courtesy of The Milky Way Project

These are usually small in size, with red or yellow-orange arcs. The arcs can sometimes be blurry and are shaped like kidney beans, according to the project website. These are rare — you'll find about one bow shock for about every 10 or 20 bubbles.  

Yellow balls 

Courtesy The Milky Way Project

These are pretty self explanatory and aren't really hard to miss. 

Povich said they also encourage people to mark anything else that might look interesting. 

There are over 77,000 images that people can classify in the third phase of the project that launched last month. So far, aspiring astronomers have collectively made about 300,000 markings on those images. He said their goal is to reach two million entries.

A screenshot of The Milky Way Project's mapping interface.
A screenshot of The Milky Way Project's mapping interface.
Screenshot by KPCC

To do that, Povich said, at least 30 people would have to analyze each individual image.  

"We have thousands of people looking at the images and they really don’t miss anything,” he said. 

If you don't find anything, it doesn't necessarily mean you don't have what it takes. 

“Some of them are quite spectacular, but some of them are more like blank star fields — you never quite know what you’re going to get,” Povich said.  

At the end of the galaxy

Once all these images are sifted through, Povich said his main goal is to have a thorough consensus of these celestial bodies in the Milky Way. 

“Once we’ve done that, we can do lots of follow up studies and among other things, we can learn how quickly our galaxy is forming stars today,” he said.  

He added that a map that includes all that information and tracks changes to the skies, is something that doesn't exist at the moment. 

This information also gets put to use a bunch of other different ways. The catalogs are published in professional astronomy journals. NASA will sometimes also use the information, he said — and normal folks with a passion for space can also just peruse at will.