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Scientists Probably Found The Next Big Discovery In Astronomy Years Ago – But They Don’t Know It Yet

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This year, astronomers stumbled across a fascinating finding: Thousands of black holes likely exist near the center of our galaxy.

The X-ray images that enabled this discovery weren’t from some state-of-the-art new telescope. Nor were they even recently taken – some of the data was collected nearly 20 years ago.

No, the researchers discovered the black holes by digging through old, long-archived data.

Discoveries like this will only become more common, as the era of “big data” changes how science is done.




The evolution of astronomy

Sixty years ago, the typical astronomer worked largely alone or in a small team. They likely had access to a respectably large ground-based optical telescope at their home institution.

Their observations were largely confined to optical wavelengths – more or less what the eye can see.

That meant they missed signals from a host of astrophysical sources, which can emit non-visible radiation from very low-frequency radio all the way up to high-energy gamma rays.

For the most part, if you wanted to do astronomy, you had to be an academic or eccentric rich person with access to a good telescope.

Astronomers are gathering an exponentially greater amount of data every day – so much that it will take years to uncover all the hidden signals buried in the archives.

Old data was stored in the form of photographic plates or published catalogs. But accessing archives from other observatories could be difficult – and it was virtually impossible for amateur astronomers.

Unlocking new science

The data deluge will make astronomy become a more collaborative and open science than ever before. Thanks to internet archives, robust learning communities and new outreach initiatives, citizens can now participate in science.

For example, with the computer program [email protected], anyone can use their computer’s idle time to help search for gravitational waves from colliding black holes.

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