Undergraduate students have been trained to classify galaxies as part of a project involving a unique space telescope that specializes in collecting infrared light. The wavelengths it will record were initially emitted by stars and galaxies as ultraviolet light more than 13 billion years ago. The work has been described as akin to “time travel,” delivering insights to what the early universe was like.

Their involvement is part of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), a project that will take some of the first observations using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) when it launches in 2021.

The preparation included CEERS team members taking part in a “Science Sprint,” a one-day immersive research experience in October 2019 that provided the undergraduates with tasks to classify more than 5,000 high-redshift galaxy candidates by evaluating their shape and brightness in multiple imaging filters. They used the Zooniverse Project Builder to present the data to the students for inspection and to collect their classifications.

The work helped the CEERS team improve the AI criteria for selecting high-redshift galaxy candidates, and to determine which of thousands of candidates they should prioritize for the JWST spectroscopic observations.

Led by Steven L. Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin, the research team will spend just over 60 hours pointing the space telescope at a slice of the sky known as the Extended Groth Strip, which was observed as part of Hubble’s Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey, or CANDELS.

The CEERS Survey team hopes to identify an abundance of distant objects, including the most distant galaxies in the universe, early galaxy mergers and interactions, the first massive or supermassive black holes, and even earlier quasars than previously identified. The data will help demonstrate what the structure of the universe was like at various periods.

In subsequent months following the initial data release, the CEERS Survey researchers will create and post new tools and catalogs that any citizen scientist researcher can use to analyze the data, including masses of galaxies, galaxy shapes, and photometric redshifts.

“With the same set of observations, hundreds of researchers can conduct hundreds of science experiments,” said CEERS Survey co-investigator Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “We’re going to find things we didn’t even think to ask, which is one more reason why the CEERS Survey research will be so rewarding.”

You can follow the project’s progress at the JWST Ceers Collaboration Twitter account.