Have you ever stood outside under a bright starry-lit sky? It’s an overwhelming experience, and maybe the last thing on your mind is artificial intelligence for astronomy. The night sky canvas seemingly wraps around you, making it impossible to take it all in. You’re not alone in that experience. Even astronomers, who look at the universe for a living, get overwhelmed by the expanse of the universe. Technological breakthroughs in telescopes have provided more images of the universe than we could ever possibly sift through and analyze. One future telescope for example, will be able to produce 15 terabytes of images in a single evening. In other words, telescopes are capturing more images of the universe than astronomers could ever go through in a lifetime. So what’s the answer? Artificial intelligence for astronomy, of course.

Astronomers are using the power of artificial intelligence for astronomy to organize and categorize the images taken by the satellites. AI is being used to help us better understand the universe in a couple of different ways. One of those ways is by recognizing the images and categorizing them in a system. Artificial intelligence does what it is trained to do. Astronomers can train the AI to recognize various patterns and types of galaxies, similar to the way Facebook uses AI to recognize faces. Then once the AI has mastered those galaxies, it can sift through thousands of pictures an hour and sort the various galaxies into their respective categories.

Another example of AI helping us understand the universe is in the work of astronomer Carlo Enrico Petrillo. He’s using this power to help identify gravitational lenses. A gravitational lense gives a closer look to extremely old and distant parts of the universe otherwise unable to be viewed. When a galaxy or black hole comes in front of another light source and a viewer on earth, that galaxy actually bends the light around the light source. This creates a viewing portal, or a lense, giving astronomers a look at deeper and older portions of space than ever thought possible. As you can imagine, finding these gravitational lenses is extremely important to astronomers. Yet it has proven equally as difficult. However with the power of artificial intelligence, these gravitational lenses can be found much more quickly. Artificial intelligence for astronomy helps us understand the universe in ways previously thought unimaginable.

Petrillo explains the power of artificial intelligence in astronomy, “An extremely good human classifier would classify images at a pace of about one thousand per hour.” This put them at a rate of finding a lens every 30,000 galaxies. Realistically, this would provide around 10 lenses a month. By comparison, utilizing AI allows them to blow through 21,789 images in only 20 minutes. Even this staggering number can be improved according to Petrillo as he commented, “This time can be shortened by a great amount.”

Using AI to help understand the universe is not the end all be all. Instead it is a tool that greatly speeds up the process. Astronomers are able to set wide parameters as what classifies as a gravitational lense, in order to be sure the program doesn’t miss anything. Then the flagged images are sifted through with human eyes, making sure each legitimate case of a lense is correctly identified.