More Than 30,000 Lost Astronomy Photos To Be Rescued From Oblivion

WorldWide Telescope view overlayed with a 1905 photograph of the Rho Ophiuchi nebula by astronomer E.E. Barnard. American Astronomical Society, NASA/SAO Astrophysics Data System, and WorldWide Telescope

Astronomical photographs have the power to bring down old theories, support new ones, and amaze and astound even people with little interest in the subject. Many astronomy photos have been lost but citizen scientists now have the chance to help researchers bring over 30,000 back.

The Astronomy Rewind project is part of the Zooniverse citizen science portal. It aims to classify the scans of more than 30,000 photos published in journals since the 19th century. The originals are often lost or too fragile to manipulate and this project hopes to unlock the treasure trove of information that remains in these old journals.

The first part of the project started in 2017 and it helped researchers distinguish between single images labeled with axes, multiple images with axes, and images (whether single or multiple) without axes. The second phase, which started yesterday, October 9, will get citizen scientists to determine the location of the images in the sky. The project has about 3,000 registered users but they can always use more (you can get involved here). 

“I was simply amazed at the Zoonizens’ response to our first set of images,” Alyssa Goodman, one of the project’s leaders at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement. “We thought it would take months to make the first pass through the scans, but our volunteers did it in a matter of days. Apparently random images of the sky look as cool to ordinary people as they do to professional astronomers!”

All the images will appear in the WorldWide Telescope (WWT), a virtual sky explorer. The team expects the 10,000 or so images with clear coordinate axes to be on the WWT in a matter of months, with the remaining two-thirds taking longer. The volunteers will have to do more investigative work to find out where the rest of the images originate from.

“Without Astronomy Rewind, astronomers would be unlikely to make the effort to extract an image from an old article, place it on the sky, and find related images at other wavelengths for comparison,” said Goodman. “Once our revivified pictures are incorporated into WorldWide Telescope, which includes images and catalogs from across the electromagnetic spectrum, contextualization will take only seconds, making it easy to compare observations from a century ago with modern data to see how celestial objects have moved or changed.”

The completion of the project will produce a unique view of the sky, showing how astronomical observations have changed over the last century and a bit. From the biggest observatories to the amateurs, astrophotography matters a great deal and is something to be celebrated.

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