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Orion Nebula
A photo of the Orion Nebula from the June 1905 issue of Astronomical Journal, at left, can be matched up automatically with WorldWide Telescope’s sky atlas, at right. (AAS / NASA / SAO Astrophysics Data System / WorldWide Telescope)

A new project called Astronomy Rewind is recruiting citizen scientists to bring decades-old cosmic images back from the dead and restore them to their rightful place.

It’s the latest offering from Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing platform that got its start a decade ago with Galaxy Zoo and has since branched out into the search for Planet Nine, worlds around distant stars, exotic subatomic particles and much, much more.

Astronomy Rewind pulls together scanned images and maps from American Astronomical Society journals that go back to the 19th century, and invites volunteers to classify them by category.

With the assistance of an automated program at, the images can be placed in their proper context on modern-day sky survey maps and other data repositories.

They’ll also be incorporated into the Astronomy Image Explorer, a service of the AAS and its partners at the UK Institute of Physics Publishing, and into the image database for WorldWide Telescope, a digital sky atlas developed by Microsoft Research and now managed by the AAS.

“There’s no telling what discoveries await,” project co-founder Alyssa Goodman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA, said in a news release. “Turning historical scientific literature into searchable, retrievable data is like turning the key to a treasure chest.”

In this case, the treasure consists of scanned pages from the Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal, ApJ Letters and the ApJ Supplement Series – all provided by the Astrophysics Data System, or ADS. The ADS archive is funded by NASA and housed at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which is part of the CfA.

Astronomy Rewind is built on a foundation laid by the ADS All-Sky Survey, an earlier effort to digitize images from the AAS journals.

“It turns out that machines aren’t very good at recognizing celestial images on digitized pages that contain a mixture of text and graphics,” said ADS project manager Alberto Accomazzi. “And they really get confused with multiple images of the sky on the same page. Humans do much better.”

That human knack for pattern recognition, facilitated by software tools, is what powers all of Zooniverse’s projects. Over the past 10 years, 1.6 million Zooniverse volunteers have made about 4 billion image classifications and other contributions.

“This isn’t just busy work,” said the Adler Planetarium’s Laura Trouille, a co-investigator for the Zooniverse effort. “Zooniverse projects have led to many surprising discoveries and to more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications.”

What overlooked gems could you bring to light with Astronomy Rewind? The only way to find out is to sign up.

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