You don’t often hear about amateur stem-cell scientists, or amateur brain surgeons. But astronomy seems to be set up perfectly for anyone to take part. Take Galaxy Zoo – a project run by scientists at Oxford University, Portsmouth University, Johns Hopkins University, Yale University and Fingerprint Digital Media, Belfast to classify over a million galaxies spotted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
A story is doing the rounds at the moment about a mysterious, unique, astronomical object with ghostly overtones – it looks like a galaxy and is full of hot gas, but gasp there are NO STARS THERE…. Wooooooooooo, spooky.
The ‘thing’ was discovered by Hanny Van Arkel, a dutch teacher who was signed up to Galaxy Zoo.She spotted the mysterious star-less ‘cosmic ghost’ which has been named Hanny’s Voorwerp because voorwerp is the dutch word for object.
Van Arkel was inspired to join the Galaxy Zoo project by none other than fuzzily-fronded Queen rocker Brian May (who recently completed his PhD thesis). Van Arkel told the BBC it was her interest in music that led her to read Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, which was written by May along with Chris Lintott and Patrick Moore.
Lintott is one of the main coordinators of Galaxy Zoo. Hey presto, a Voorwerp is born.
The latest round of news reports about Hanny’s Voorwerp stem from a press release, although the news has been reported previously, back in June (Science News here and here). The Galaxy Zoo blog says that the paper is in the review process at the moment, so we can expect the full science treatment soon. But at the moment, professional astronomers are saying that the most likely explanation is that a nearby galaxy once contained a quasar so bright that it lights up the voorwerp still today, even though the black hole that powered that quasar has long since died.
Picture: Dan Smith, Peter Herbert, Matt Jarvis & the ING