Scoping out stellar rainbows

The Scope project lets you classify millions of stars and help professional astronomers create new science using decades-old data. Like GalaxyZoo, the big daddy of crowdsourced astronomy programs, the Scope project depends on thousands of volunteers - amateurs with no astronomy training at all - to produce a catalog that professional astronomers can use in their research. Scope asks you to classify stars by recognizing patterns in their spectra.

After picking a spectrum from the plate interface, the Scope project lets you match the spectrum to stellar classes and subclasses. Source: Pari/Scope

After picking a spectrum from the plate interface, the Scope project lets you match the spectrum to stellar classes and subclasses. Source: Pari/Scope

Scope (short for Stellar Classification Online Public Exploration) presents you with the spectrum of a star recorded on a decades-old photographic plate. From red dwarf to blue supergiant, each type of star has a unique pattern of gaps in its spectrum where light was absorbed by elements in the star’s surface. Identify the pattern and you’ve identified the kind of star that produced it.

Different heavy elements at the surface of a star absorb different wavelengths of light. These absorption gaps form the star's spectral fingerprint that tells astronomers what kind of star they are looking at. Source: NOAO/AURA/NSF

Different heavy elements at the surface of a star absorb different wavelengths of light. These absorption gaps form the star's spectral fingerprint that tells astronomers what kind of star they are looking at. Source: NOAO/AURA/NSF

Learn more about spectral classifications on the Scope science page or Nasa’s Imagine the Universe.

Scope’s images are too fuzzy for automatic software to recognize, but human pattern recognition works great. You match the pattern of gaps in the spectrum to the right star class and subclass. When the project’s scientists combine your contributions with those from thousands of other amateurs they will produce a million-star spectral catalog. Most of those stars have never been measured, so you will make brand new science possible!

Sheltered by the Appalachian Mountains, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute uses its 25-meter radio telescopes for astronomy research and education outreach. Source: Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

Sheltered by the Appalachian Mountains, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute uses its 25-meter radio telescopes for astronomy research and education outreach. Source: Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

Scope is run by the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, Pari for short. Operating from a retired satellite tracking center in the forests of North Carolina, Pari conducts astronomical research and education programs in optical and radio astronomy. 

Pari’s scientists are also preserving America’s astronomical heritage. Before the rise of digital technology, astronomers recorded their observations on photographic plates. Millions of these heavy, fragile chunks of glass sit unused in university storerooms. The data on those plates could produce useful science. If only there was an easy way to get the data.

Pari is rescuing these plates and scanning them into a digital archive. Like the archives of the major observatories, astronomers will be able to search the archive and recover data from 130 years of observations. The archive will let astronomers find asteroids and supernovae, study the evolution of stars, and much much more.