Science & Tech

How to get started exploring the universe from your desk

This article is part of a series explaining how readers can learn the skills to take part in activities that academics love doing as part of their work.


By far my favourite thing about my job as an astronomer is those rare moments when I get to see beautiful distant galaxies, whose light left them millions to billions of years ago. It’s a combination of pure awe and scientific curiosity that excites me about “galaxy hunting”.

In astronomy today, much of our work is handling enormous amounts of data by writing and running programs to work with images of the sky. A downside to this is that we don’t always have that “hands-on” experience of looking at every square inch of the universe while we study it. I’m going to show you, though, how I get my fix of wonder by looking at galaxies that only a select few people will ever have seen, until now.

In just our observable universe we estimate there are over 2 trillion galaxies!

Galaxies at your fingertips

Only a few decades ago astronomers had to tediously examine photographic plates after a long, cold and lonely night of observing. In the 21st century we have access to information any time, anywhere via the internet.

Automatic telescopes and surveys now provide us with so much data we require machines to help us analyze it. In some cases human eyes will only ever look at what the computers have deemed is interesting! Massive amounts of data are hosted online, just waiting to be admired, for free.

Go online for a universe atlas

Aladin Lite is one of the greatest online tools available to look at our universe through the eyes of many different telescopes. Here we can scan the entire sky for hidden galaxies, and even decipher information about their stellar populations and evolution.

Let’s start our universal tour by searching for one of the most visually stunning galaxies out there, the Cartwheel Galaxy. In the Aladin interface, you can search for both the popular name of an object (like “cartwheel galaxy”) or known co-ordinates. The location will be centered in the interface.