Did you know you can view 370 million stars and galaxies from the comfort of your desk chair? The interactive Sky Viewer tool, which can be accessed through any web browser, allows users to take a virtual tour of the universe.
The project began in May 2015, but in January, the project's database doubled in size. Its images are drawn from the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey (DECaLs), an international collaboration run by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The images were taken by the 520-megapixel Dark Energy Survey Camera (DECam) which is installed on the Victor M. Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
While scientists will be using the data to unlock the secrets of our universe, the casual space enthusiast can use this viewing tool to explore raw images of faraway stars and galaxies. Simply drag your cursor around the sky, or you can click on an object and be re-directed to a page containing known data about that object. Several different views are available, too.
The Sky Viewer tool was built by Dustin Lang, a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Lang is also the coder behind Astrometry.net, a website that classifies user-uploaded photographs of the sky and in turn reveals the celestial coordinates and other data related to the image.
In 2018, even more images will be available on Sky Viewer after DECaLs installs its Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) on the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. According to the Berkeley Lab, “DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.” This will provide the most accurate and detailed map of the universe we’ve ever had — and a lot more stars and galaxies to look at on your computer.
If you’re wondering just how many objects DESI will catalogue, David Schlegel, a scientist with the project says, “When we finish this we’ll have a few billion objects.” Since the DECaLs project makes all of its data public, other researchers have access to the wealth of information. DECaLs is not stingy about sharing its data; even the code for the project is open source.
You don’t have to be a scientist to help out with the project, either. Galaxy Zoo is a citizen-science project run by Zooniverse. Galaxy Zoo encourages users to help scientists by analyzing galaxies. A picture of a galaxy appears on your screen, and you can then classify it by answering a few prompts. Each galaxy image is categorized by 40 people for the sake of accuracy. Right now, there are 30,000 galaxies from the DECaLs project on Galaxy Zoo. Once that batch has been analyzed, a new set will be imported. It’s a fun and easy way to help scientists crunch data, one galaxy at a time.