Imagine having a whole galaxy named after you because you discovered it… when you’re not actually an astronomer.

This is one of the remarkable things that can happen when you’re a citizen scientist.

Dr Stas Shabala, Senior Lecturer in Physics, is one of the researchers who works in conjunction with citizen scientists.

Radio Galaxy Zoo is a citizen science project. We train citizens to help classify things that are too difficult for computers, because the human brain is very good at image recognition and classification- much better than a computer.

The Radio Galaxy Zoo citizen scientists spend their free time scanning large amounts of radio images of outer space for research purposes.

2 million

classifications have been made through Radio Galaxy Zoo.

“There’s a handful of people who are what we call ‘super-users.’ They get through a mountain of classifications.”

Every so often, the dedicated super-users find something remarkable. This time, one of them identified several new galaxies. And these are not normal galaxies.

“When astronomers talk about radio galaxies, they are actually not talking about galaxies at all. ‘Radio galaxies’ are powerful jets of plasma launched from regions very close to huge black holes. We can see these jets with radio telescopes – and the name is just a hangover from the time when we didn’t understand what these objects were.

“Most radio galaxies come in one of two shapes, named Fanaroff-Riley Type I and II (FR-I and FR-II) after the scientists who first discovered them. Each radio galaxy always has two jets, going in opposite directions from the central black hole that launches them. Whatever happens on one side is mirrored on the other,” Dr Shabala said.

“For a very small population of objects, there’s a weird crossover where it looks like an FR-I object on one side, but on the other it looks like an FR-II. They’re very rare. We call them hybrid morphology radio galaxies.”

The Radio Galaxy Zoo team recently identified a whopping 25 new hybrids, a discovery that Dr Shabala compared to finding needles in a haystack.

Credits: Kapinska (based on FIRST/NRAO, SDSS, Leahy+Perley 1991).

This finding has actually doubled the amount of hybrid radio galaxies found to date.

11,000

contributions have been made by citizen scientists

“Now that we have 25 more, we can start to ask questions about these objects as a population. What are their properties, and why do they appear so weird? Is there something special about them?”

For citizen scientist Ivan Terentev, this will be the second scientific paper he has contributed to. The first was about a cluster of galaxies he discovered, that is now named after him.

Dr Shabala said citizen science in astronomy was initially greeted with a little bit of scepticism, but is becoming more mainstream.

“I think a lot of the citizen scientists like the idea of engaging in the process of astronomical discovery. Some go further and like to get involved with discussions about what the discoveries mean, and even in scientific papers, which is fantastic.

We are getting people who are excited about science to not just read about it, but to make a meaningful contribution.

177,000

radio galaxies (“subjects”) have been classified

“Now that we’re finding all these unusual radio galaxies, we are getting to the point of testing various scientific theories of how they might come to be.” he said.

“This includes running heavy-duty numerical models on supercomputers, to see what special conditions are required to produce the radio galaxies we see in the real Universe.”

Dr Shabala said the Radio Galaxy Zoo is an ongoing project, and the vital work of the citizen scientists was still needed.

It’s very much ‘please keep clicking!’

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About Dr Stas Shabala

Dr Shabala is a Lecturer in Physics and ARC Early Career Fellow at the University of Tasmania. His primary area of research is extragalactic astrophysics, with a focus on the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the physics of active supermassive black holes (Active Galactic Nuclei; AGN). He is particularly interested in developing the theoretical tools required for interpretation of next-generation large sky surveys, including by the Square Kilometre Array and its pathfinders. Stas also develops new observing and analysis techniques for geodetic and astrometric Very Long Baseline Interferometry, including detailed consideration of AGN physics. Dr Shabala is passionate about science participation and outreach. He is the current Chair of the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Institute of Physics, and the project manager of the Radio Galaxy Zoo citizen science project.

View Dr Stas Shabala's full researcher profile