Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Astronomers release galactic collision game

Galaxy image
Players will help astronomers to find out how galaxies merged

Astronomers have devised a game to help uncover the basis of galactic pile-ups.

The game, part of the ongoing web-based project Galaxy Zoo, shows players images of colliding galaxies and asks them to match those to simulations.

By selecting the closest matching simulation, players can help astronomers to work out how the real galaxies actually merged.

The astronomers say that humans are "much better than computers" at spotting the patterns and similarities.

The developers described the game as a "cosmic fruit machine".

It shows players one real galaxy image and, on command, eight randomly selected simulations pop into the "slots" surrounding that image.

The aim is for players to choose the simulations that look most similar to the real galaxy and take those through to the "next round" to examine them further.

The simulated images show the different aspects of galaxy formation, so as people play, they will generate data that will help astronomers' understanding of these collisions.

Galaxy Zoo
Players compare real galaxies (centre) to a selection of simulations

"The strength of the game is that it takes results from many people," said Dr Chris Lintott from Oxford University, one of the members of the Galaxy Zoo team.

These galactic mergers could be the key to why the Universe contains a mixture of different galaxies - some with trailing spiral arms, others more like compact balls of stars.

Strength in numbers

Dr Lintott explained that, when the original Galaxy Zoo project launched in 2007, it asked volunteers to identify different types of galaxies within a gallery of cosmic images.

"It was a victim of its own success," he told BBC News. "Our volunteers found 3,000 fantastic examples of [galactic] mergers - many more than we could simulate on our own,"

So the team now hope to enrol the public once again to examine all 3,000 galaxies.

Anthony Holincheck, a graduate student at George Mason University and another member of the team said: "These collisions take millions of years to unfold.

"All we get from the Universe is a single snapshot of each one. [With] simulations, we will be able to watch each cosmic car crash unfold in the computer."

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