Volunteer Stargazers Discover Five New Supernovas

Image: SkyMapper supernova
Supernova SN 2012fr was one of the supernovas identified by citizen astronomers who sifted through images taken by the SkyMapper Telescope.ANU / SkyMapper Telescope

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
/ Source: NBC News

More than 40,000 citizen stargazers have helped to classify more than 2 million celestial objects and identify five never-before-seen supernovas.

An amateur astronomy project of cosmic proportions, established by scientists at the Australian National University, asked volunteers to look through images taken by the SkyMapper telescope and search for new objects, with a particular focus on finding new supernovas.

The project was set up using the Zooniverse platform, which is run by the University of Oxford and hosts many other citizen science projects. The effort was promoted on the BBC2 TV series "Stargazing Live" from March 18 to March 20. [Supernova Photos: Great Images of Star Explosions]

To participate in the project, volunteers signed up online and accessed the Zooniverse platform, which walked them through their tasks.

Zooniverse has hosted many space-related citizen science projects in the past, including hunts for alien planets, "space warp" galaxies and holes in cosmic clouds.

The participants were asked to look at star-filled patches of the night sky taken by the SkyMapper telescope. The volunteers would look at images of the same region taken at different times, and search for changes that could indicate the presence of different celestial objects.

A supernova, for example, is a large star that has burned up most of its fuel and dies in a great explosion. A supernova eruption can briefly outshine all the light created by all the stars in an entire galaxy — so even a star that is normally too distant to see with a telescope may suddenly become visible if it explodes into a supernova. This means a SkyMapper volunteer might see a point of light appear where there previously was none.

If one of the citizen scientists spotted a possible supernova or some other change in the sky images, then additional volunteers would examine that same region. Once the citizen observers confirmed a new object, then professional scientists would do a more detailed background check to verify the results.

The five newly discovered supernovas already have made their way into a cosmological study of dark energy by the SkyMapper scientists, but there is more work to be done before the results are published.

— Calla Cofield, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Calla Cofield on @Twitter. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.