NASA is allowing civilians to become amateur astronomers as they search for answers about mysterious explosions in space.
Citizen Burst Chasers are asked to read signals from events, known as gamma ray bursts (GRBs), and decode what the universe might be saying.
Gamma rays are a bright form of light coming from billions of light-years from Earth, and the US space agency believes the origins of the cosmic wonder live in the emitted pulses.
Volunteer scientists will examine any slow bursts of energy detected by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory Telescope and will present their findings through the project’s website.
Gamma rays are a bright form of light that comes from billions of light-years away
The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory telescope detects bursts of light, or gamma rays
GRBs were first discovered in the 1960s, and have since fascinated scientists around the world, but also sparked a search to find out what causes these violent explosions.
When stars or black holes die, they expel material at speeds close to the speed of light, and powerful, bright, short-lived flashes of gamma rays can be detected by satellites orbiting Earth.
Magnetic fields cannot be seen directly, but telescopes like Hubble pick up a signature encoded in the light generated by charged particles, or electrons, orbiting around magnetic field lines.
Ground-based telescopes have also captured this light, which has traveled for millions of years across the universe.
NASA described the pulses as “short flashes of gamma rays and is one of the most energetic explosions in the universe!”
The agency added that although they know what gamma rays are associated with, “how these events produce pulses with such a diverse set of properties remains a mystery.”
In a desperate plea, NASA concluded: “We need your help to sort through these pulses to better understand how these powerful gamma-ray pulses are created.”
The Burst Chaser project website gives amateur astronomers guidance on what type of responses to look for.
Volunteers can join the Burst Chaser Project to identify bursts of gamma rays
The site also provides a tutorial and an assignment intended to test a person’s knowledge of recording and classifying gamma-ray burst pulse shapes.
When gamma rays explode, they emit a noise oscillation and pulse, which NASA classifies as twice the noise magnitude.
Explosions can give astronomers insight into what happens in extreme environments that they cannot replicate on Earth, and can provide clues about how the universe formed and evolved.
However, NASA explains that “there are no clear definitions between pulsations and noise,” and asks volunteers to “use your best judgment to distinguish between them.”
The Burst Chaser Project received more than 1,200 volunteers and nearly 72,000 gamma ray classifications.
“We need your help to classify these pulses for further evidence of what they are!” said Professor Amy Lin of the University of Tampa, the project’s principal investigator.