Looking for something to do during the coronavirus quarantine?
Through several ongoing citizen science projects, you can use some of your time stuck inside to help astronomers identify new galaxies — or even spot collisions between them — all from behind your computer or phone screen.
Helping During the Coronavirus Quarantine
Thanks to the many advanced telescopes now in operation, both on Earth and in space, today's astronomers have more images of the universe than ever before.
What they don't have, though, is enough time to sort through all of those images.
To fill the gap, the pros are crowdsourcing help from citizen scientists — people willing to volunteer their time completing tasks that don't require a lot of scientific know-how but that are important nonetheless.
One project has drawn the help of over 41,000 volunteers to sort through images of galaxies online.
Now that the coronavirus quarantine has left so many people with extra free time, researchers are hopeful some will choose to spend it contributing to their ongoing citizen science projects.
"(T)hat kind of captures the zeitgeist of coronavirus: what can we do when we're all trapped at home?" Heather Lynch, a statistical ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Space.com.
One citizen science project, Galaxy Zoo, launched in 2007 and has since drawn the help of more than 41,000 volunteers who look at images of distant galaxies online and identify their shape.
According to University of Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott, this is super easy — "You don't even need to know what a galaxy is," he told Space.com — but also super important.
"The shape of a galaxy tells you about its history," Lintott said. "It tells you about when it accreted material, when it collided with other galaxies, when it formed stars and all sorts of other things."
In February 2020, just weeks after the coronavirus quarantine began in many places, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan launched its own galaxy-focused citizen science project: Galaxy Cruise.
This one tasks volunteers not just with classifying galaxies but hunting down collisions between them. It also incorporates a gaming element to make it easier to get sucked into while killing time during the coronavirus quarantine.
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A Boon for Citizen Science
Even if galaxies aren't your thing, though, chances are you'll be able to find a citizen science project that does align with your interests if you take the time to look.
One project focused on digitizing handwritten rainfall data has even proven how citizen science can benefit from the coronavirus quarantine — after its leader Ed Hawkins sent a tweet asking if anyone wanted to help out while stuck at home, more than 12,000 people volunteered.
"It's been incredible," Hawkins told BBC News. "I thought we might get this far after three or four weeks, not three or four days."
It may still be too soon to know how the COVID-19 outbreak will end, but one thing is certain: if even a fraction of the people stuck at home due to the coronavirus quarantine contribute to citizen science projects, the impact will be felt long after the lockdowns are lifted.