LIGO helping scientists understand gravitational waves

by Trevor DeBord


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Image taken from Gravity Spy’s ‘about’ page

Gravity Spy is a crowdsourcing project which uses data taken from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO for short). LIGO was created in an attempt to detect evidence of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is an extremely sensitive piece of equipment which detects gravitational waves from all over the universe. In fact, the LIGO is so sensitive that, “LIGO needs to be able to know when the length of its 4-kilometer arms change by a distance 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a proton”(Information taken from Gravity Spy’s about page). A large amount of data is taken from LIGO, and Gravity Spy helps to categorize that data.

LIGO detects gravitational anomalies by shooting a laser down a pair of four kilometer long cavities and measuring the duration it takes for the light to reach each end. If the beams of light reach the end at different times, then we know there was some kind of interference. This can be caused by either a gravitational wave or some kind of external interference in the environment around the facility, causing a signal to be created. This works because the speed of light is constant, so LIGO acts as an extremely accurate timer measuring the change in the light.



A simplified version of how LIGO works. Image by: Jason Grigsby (Wolfram Blog)

Despite the scientists’ best efforts to reduce the possibility of common sources of interference by having two detectors separated by thousands of miles, glitches still occur often in both detectors. The ability to classify and filter these glitches is incredibly important for the development of this research, as it would increase the amount of legitimate astrophysical signal detection. This is where the crowdsourcing aspect of the research comes in. Participants of Gravity Spy will help to categorize a massive amount of data from LIGO, which will serve as a database for machine-learning. This machine learning will use this database as a way to classify new glitches based off what participants in the program categorized each specific glitch as in the dataset.   

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A simplified version of how LIGO works Image by: Jason Grigsby (Wolfram Blog)


Overall I think the project is very interesting, and I will continue to do work on Zooniverse and Gravity Spy as time goes on. One of the things I specifically like about the project is the community behind it. There is an active forum where you can ask questions and post interesting things you found while working through it. I also like how there are occasional pop-ups which give you additional information about LIGO, giving you a better background.


Hiding in Plain Sight

by Jack Morgan

The Zooniverse research project that I selected was Comet Hunters. Zooniverse is a website that researchers can use to crowdsource analysis of data when they have far too much data to get through on their own. Astronomers in this study were looking to for Comets in the Asteroid Belt. Very few, (four, to be exact), of these had been discovered prior to the study so these researchers were looking to find more of these types of comets, known as Main-Belt Comets, so they can study their nature and what makes them different to regular comets.

One of the reasons so few main-belt comets have been discovered is that the comet-like properties are very hard to detect and only recent, higher resolution cameras have been able to display these traits. Once Astronomers observed the comets, the started taking new photos of the asteroid belt as well as reviewing older photos of  the asteroid belt to search for the comets. Another reason that main-belt comets have been so hard to detect is because the sublimation of the ice that the comets are made of is what causes the comet’s tail, but impacts between normal asteroids in the Asteroid Belt can cause ejections of dust that look similar to the tail of a comet.

pasted image 0.pngThe above image shows a catastrophic asteroid disruption where an asteroid completely breaks apart, and as the individual pieces are are flung outward by centrifugal force, the dust from the event gives the fragments comet like tails.Image credit: Comet Hunters, NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI).


This means that even if an object in the Asteroid belt appears to have a tail, further study of the object will be needed to determine whether it is a main-belt comet or a disrupted asteroid.

By combining both new and old survey pictures, astronomers ended up with over twenty thousand images to classify. One person working forty hours a week would take over five months to classify every image. While this could be done, it wouldn’t be very practical and it’s likely that there would be mistakes/inaccuracies in the final results, so the astronomers set up a project on Zooniverse to enlist the help of the general public. Zooniverse is the world’s largest platform for people powered research, with the goal of the platform being to enable research to be conducted on a scale that would otherwise be impossible. Most of the data in the projects on Zooniverse is data that can’t be analyzed by computers, so the analysis is opened up to the public with the platform converting the flood of data in these projects into measurable results that the researchers can use to further the understanding of a particular subject.

The Comet Hunters project is still ongoing as of the time of writing, which means anyone reading this can participate. Every subject will have fifteen classification before it is considered to be completed, with the project having more than three hundred classifications so far. Once the project is complete, the objects that have been flagged as potential main-belt comets will receive a follow-up study to see if they continue to exhibit comet like properties. Until then, the researchers will wait as we, the public, continue to sift through the data and look out for more interesting objects, with the potential for any random person to discover something completely new.


AmazonCam Tambopata

by Enrique Colita

The Zooniverse project I chose to explore is AmazonCam Tambopata. In this project volunteers identify animal(s) in a picture taken by a camera in the Peruvian Amazon. These animals are fairly easy to identify as the areas covered by these cameras had recurring appearances of animals. There is a checklist that you will be given to identify the animal(s) that you will see in the pictures. All the data is collected from two Peruvian rainforests (Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja Sonene National Park). These rainforests are protected, meaning that there will be no tampering with any cameras put in the rainforests other than the animals.

This is one of the biggest animal monitoring groups in all of South America. This network of cameras, on a huge trail system known as ‘The Big Grid’, shows the movements of wildlife throughout the two rainforests: Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja Sonene National Park. The cameras will be put out on each part of ‘the grid’ all year long. It will be able to monitor the movements of animals, what they eat, and how many animals travel in a groups and their numbers.





The top predators In the peruvian rainforests would be the jaguars. The jaguars live in very large and uneasy territory, but it is still very easy to identify the jaguars out in the rainforests. The pictures help to show how the animals travel, whether it be in pairs, packs, or if they travel with their cubs. It helps to determine how long the animals live and much more!

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Overall, I believe that this is a good project for people to participate in. It’s fairly easy to identify animals (with the help of tools if it gets harder to identify animals or if the picture is blurry). You learn more on how different animals move throughout these two forests. It’s really important because it is one of the last of the “natural frontiers” of earth, so this project raises awareness of these animals’ homes and helps preserve it.  

Learn more an help out the project at : – contributed by Mark Bowler, Daniel Couceiro, and Mathias Tobler

Research team: Diego Balbuena and Gaby Orihuela

Full team: Dr. Mark Bowler, Daniel Couceiro, Mathias Tobler, Paloma Alcazar, Juan Grados, Dr. George Olah, Aaron Pomerantz, Dr. Vuran Swamy, Dr. Donald Brightsmith

Spare Time Comet Hunting

By: Iryna Blazhevych

Imagine discovering comets in our universe from the comfort of your home. Comet Hunters is one of the many projects on Zooniverse where main belt comets are identified and differentiated from asteroids. Main Belt comets were not long ago discovered in our universe. They are located in the Solar System’s asteroid belt and have traits typically assigned to comets, such as a tail. The reason this project exists, is because only ten of these main belt comets have been discovered up to date, which leads to a very limited understanding of them.

With the Zooniverse platform, anyone can help with the discovery of these main belt comets. All volunteers need to do is create a Zooniverse account and then they are all set to identify and analyze the photos of comets and asteroids given to them. Volunteers will either classify new or old photos of the asteroids. When classifying the asteroids, all volunteers need to do is look at two side by side images taken in space and decide whether the asteroids are visible in the middle of the photo. If the answer to the previous question is yes, then the volunteer must determine whether or not the asteroids have tails. With such easy steps, volunteers can get through a classification in under a minute. There is also an option in which when the volunteers are done classifying the images, they can talk to other volunteers that did the same classification. This can be a useful tool in both finding new observation in the images and debated on what the right classification is to get the most valid answer.

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The classifications that volunteers do are not in vain. With them, astronomers in the Comet Hunters team can identify and track these main belt comets. When a new potential main belt comet is chosen, it is observed with both ground and space telescopes, and determined whether or not it is a main belt comet. With this information, the origins of our Solar System can be studied, since asteroids and comets are leftover masses from the creation of the planets. It will also increase the discovery rate of main belt comets in the future. Every classification the volunteers do leads to a broader understanding of our Solar System and the objects with which we share it with.


Zooniverse. (n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from