Astronomers want your help to identify thousands of black holes

Astronomers are asking for the public’s help in identifying black holes using data from the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope. LOFAR is a radio telescope that has completed a huge survey of the sky and spotted many potential black holes, but the data requires further classification before it can be used for research purposes.

“LOFAR’s new survey has revealed millions of previously undetected radio sources,” Huub Röttgering, astronomer from Leiden University in The Netherlands and first chair of LOFAR’s Astronomy Research Committee, said in a statement. “With the help of the public we can investigate the nature of these sources: Where are their black holes? In what kind of galaxies are the black holes located?’’

The sources that LOFAR has identified in its radio survey are called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), which are powered by supermassive black holes. These enormous black holes pull material that comes near to them due to their immense gravity. When gas comes close to the black hole, it impacts particles spinning around the black hole and creates a shockwave of infrared light. This infrared light is sent out in two diametrically opposed jets which are sent spewing from the black hole.

By observing these jets, astronomers can learn about how black holes form and evolve. LOFAR has imaged hundreds of thousands of jets, and the scientists use computer algorithms to identify the source of the radio signals detected. However, there are limitations to a computer’s ability to accurately detect whether a radio signal is coming from a single source or multiple sources.

This is where the help of the public comes in. Interested participants can help by classifying images of black holes which show both data from optical telescopes and radio data from LOFAR. Volunteers will identify whether radio emissions appear to come from one source or from separate sources.

Tim Shimwell, ASTRON and Leiden University, explained how this can help the team in their investigation of black holes: “Your task is to match the radio sources with the right galaxy,” he said. “This will help researchers understand how radio sources are formed, how black holes evolve, and how vast quantities of material can be ejected into deep space with such unprecedented amounts of energy.”

You can try out spotting black holes for yourself at the Zooniverse website.

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