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Published: January 09, 2024

UT Astronomer Launches Citizen Science Project to Research Gamma-Ray Bursts and the History of the Universe

Gamma-ray bursts, one of the most energetic and bright explosions in the universe, may help explain how stars and the universe evolve throughout cosmic time. However, the physical mechanism of these phenomena remains unsettled. University of Tampa Assistant Professor of Physics Amy Lien hopes to unlock some of these mysteries and is looking for your help to do so. No previous experience or training is required to join this quest, just a love of astronomy.

UT Astronomer Launches Citizen Science Project to Research Gamma-Ray Bursts and the History of the UniverseUniversity of Tampa Assistant Professor of Physics Amy Lien hopes to unlock some of these mysteries and is looking for your help to do so.

Lien’s research, “Burst Chaser: Unveiling the mysterious origin of gamma-ray bursts with citizen science,” includes examining new spacecraft data to determine if these bursts are caused by either the collapse of massive stars, otherwise known as a supernova, or the merging of objects like neutron stars and black holes. Three University of Tampa seniors — Katherine Kurilov, Carter Murawski and Sebastian Reisch — are assisting with the research.

The gamma-ray bursts can only be seen by powerful space telescopes, like NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, a multi-wavelength space telescope dedicated to studying gamma-ray bursts. These bursts occur millions of light years away and, since light travels at a finite speed, it means that astronomers are actually looking back in time and observing what happened billions of years ago in the universe. Gamma-ray bursts are one of the very few events that can be seen directly out to the era when the first stars were expected to have formed.

Gamma-ray bursts are thus powerful tools to study the environment in the early universe and how the universe has evolved to its current stage. It also allows further learning about stars and how they form and die.

However, astronomers and theorists need to understand what they are looking at, especially given the diverse gamma-ray burst light curves, otherwise known as pulse structures. That’s where the new citizen science project comes into play. Volunteers, also known as citizen scientists, can assist the research by identifying common themes in the pulse structure of gamma-ray bursts, thus providing a classification system.

“The shape of the pulses encodes the information of whether they originate from explosions of massive stars or merging of neutron stars and black holes,” Lien said. “We need the public’s help to flag gamma-ray bursts with specific pulse shapes that will help astronomers to solve the mystery of their physical origins. The public’s eyes can quickly classify pulse shapes and other patterns in the data that we haven’t yet been able to teach a computer to spot.”

The project is hosted by Zooniverse, a popular platform for people-powered research, and a dedicated group of volunteers built the Burst Chaser Zooniverse platform. In the beta-testing phase, several dozen citizens classified numerous gamma-ray bursts and showed remarkable consistency in GRB pulse classification. This preliminary result indicates that this approach can be a feasible method to provide the first large population study of pulse structures.

Lien and the Burst Chaser team launched the project, which is supported by NASA's Citizen Science Seed Funding Program (CSSFP), today during the American Astronomical Society meeting in New Orleans. For more information, contact Lien at alien@ut.edu. To join the project and help unravel the mystery of gamma-ray bursts, go to: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/amylien/burst-chaser.


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