Astronomer Karen Masters studies galaxies which are hundreds of millions of light years away.
Which, from an astronomers point of view, is not that far.
Last night, Dr Masters spoke at New Plymouth Girls' High School as part of the Beatrice Hill Tinsley Lecture Series.
Beatrice Tinsley, from New Plymouth, went on to become a professor of astrophysics at Yale University, United States.
Dr Masters, who was hosted by the New Plymouth Astronomical Society, is involved with Galaxy Zoo, a website she calls a "citizen's science project". "We show pictures of galaxies through a website and ask people to look at the pictures."
She can't personally look at a million galaxies, so she asks questions about what people see, and combining the efforts of many thousands of people can get the information she needs.
Galaxies come in two basic kinds, spiral, which look like a whirlpool and elliptical.
Galaxy Zoo has been running for six years and has involved hundreds of thousands of people, Dr Masters said.
"If you look at galaxies that are very, very far away you are actually looking back in time, which is one of the neat things about astronomy."
A light year is the distance light is able to travel in a year, so she is looking at galaxies as they were hundreds of millions of years ago.
"But that is nothing compared to the age of the universe. The universe is 14 billion years old."
There are images of very distance galaxies in Galaxy Zoo, she said. "And the light that we see left those galaxies eight billion years ago. We are looking at galaxies that are half the age of the universe, so we can look at that and compare them to see how galaxies change."
Quite a lot of the stars she is looking at would have died by now, but galaxies last for a long time. The Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, is more than 10 billion years old.
"It's hard to measure the global properties of the Milky Way, because we are inside it."
So its difficult to get a picture of what it looks like from the outside. "But people have tried to do that and there is some suggestions that the Milky Way is quite an old spiral. And it is on its way to being a dead spiral, because the Milky Way is still making new stars, but not as fast as you would expect."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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