Many people dream of making the next big discovery to change the way humans think about the universe. For most of history, that dream has been off limits to all but research scientists. In recent decades, however, citizen science has given regular people a chance to make those big discoveries. That's how one of the strangest space objects ever witnessed was discovered by a 24-year-old schoolteacher from the Netherlands.
Because the fact that a regular citizen can make a huge scientific discovery is a testament to the power of citizen science.
It makes us wonder.... could we make the next big space discovery?
"Hanny, Here's Your Voorwerp."
Discoverer Hanny van Arkel told the story of the bizarre object's discovery on her website. As a citizen volunteer for Galaxy Zoo—a citizen-science organization she discovered through her fandom of Queen-guitarist-turned-phD Brian May—van Arkel spent her free summer months in 2007 classifying galaxies from Hubble images. She had only been volunteering a week when she classified an anti-clockwise spiral galaxy...and stopped. There was more to the image than just the galaxy. "I noticed it had a nice neighbour, although I wasn't sure it was a galaxy, so maybe 'the smudge under it' is a better way of explaining what I saw," van Arkel writes. "I read on the site about irregular galaxies and this 'smudge' made me think of one of those, although it was much bluer and it had a remarkable form."
She submitted the image to the Galaxy Zoo forums to see if anyone knew what the "smudge" was. No one did, but that didn't stop them from puzzling over it. One member, who knew van Arkel was Dutch, looked up the Dutch word for "object" and posted "Hanny, here's your Voorwerp." "Hanny's Voorwerp" was given a name.
What Exactly Is It?
In January 2008, the astronomers in charge of Galaxy Zoo began investigating Hanny's Voorwerp. What they discovered was the interaction between a region of star formation and cloud of gas flowing out from the spiral galaxy van Arkel originally classified. At the core of that galaxy is a quasar, whose black-hole-powered radiation blast sent a powerful beam of light at Hanny's Voorwerp and turned its gas cloud an eerie green color. According to NASA, "Radio studies have revealed that Hanny's Voorwerp is not just an island gas cloud floating in space. The glowing blob is part of a long, twisting rope of gas, or tidal tail, about 300,000 light-years long that wraps around the galaxy. The only optically visible part of the rope is Hanny's Voorwerp. The illuminated object is so huge that it stretches from 44,000 light-years to 136,000 light-years from the galaxy's core." That all may mean that this galaxy collided with another galaxy around a billion years ago, thereby teaching astronomers something new about how galaxies merge.
Hanny van Arkel discovered something new about the universe. While this may have been nearly impossible for a 20-something schoolteacher in decades past, the internet has proven to be an egalitarian place where anyone can achieve amazing things, as long as they keep on trying.