Astronomy prof enlists amateur star-gazers in search for new celestial bodies

A York University professor is calling on amateur star-gazers to help locate a needle in an astronomical haystack.

Professor Pat Hall hopes to uncover new astronomical phenomena among the 20,000 unknown objects detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an international scientific collaboration that has produced the most detailed map of our sky to date.

The survey, which wraps up next month, digitally photographed one quarter of the sky, pinpointing more than 100 million celestial objects; computer software classified 99 per cent of these. Human eyes – many pairs – are needed to inspect the 20,000 objects the software missed.

"A new discovery may well lie hidden within the unclassified one percent," says Hall, a professor in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. "We can still classify these objects, but only through visual inspection, and that’s an enormous undertaking."

He extended this invitation to members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) during their annual convention, which began Friday at York University and runs until tomorrow.

Volunteers interested in the project will join a Google group with links to the survey images, spectra, and other information on each object. After inspecting an object, any group member can submit a classification for that object, or start a discussion if they’ve found something intriguing or confusing.

Hall acknowledges it’s tedious work; most of these "unknowns" will turn out to be stars, galaxies or quasars missed due to bugs in the survey’s software. But there’s reason for optimism: last summer, two high school students under his tutelage uncovered a previously-overlooked star within 100 light years of the sun, and a burst of light of unknown origin.

Hall delivered a presentation on the Sloan survey on Saturday, June 28, as part of the convention, which is co-hosted by York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and the Toronto, Mississauga and Hamilton RASC chapters. The convention brings together more than 200 amateur and professional astronomers. A keynote lecture will be delivered today by internationally renowned astronomer Phil Plait. Participants have also had an opportunity to tour the York University Observatory.

Visit the RASC Convention Web site for more information. To learn more about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, click here.