Artificial Intelligence Classifies Real Supernova Explosions With Unprecedented Accuracy

A new machine learning algorithm trained only with real data has classified over 2,300 supernovae with over 80% accuracy.

Artificial intelligence is classifying real supernova explosions without the traditional use of spectra, thanks to a team of astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. The complete data sets and resulting classifications are publicly available for open use.

By training a machine learning model to categorize supernovae based on their visible characteristics, the astronomers were able to classify real data from the Pan-STARRS1 Medium Deep Survey for 2,315 supernovae with an accuracy rate of 82-percent without the use of spectra.

The astronomers developed a software program that classifies different types of supernovae based on their light curves, or how their brightness changes over time. “We have approximately 2,500 supernovae with light curves from the Pan-STARRS1 Medium Deep Survey, and of those, 500 supernovae with spectra that can be used for classification,” said Griffin Hosseinzadeh, a postdoctoral researcher at the CfA and lead author on the first of two papers published in The Astrophysical Journal. “We trained the classifier using those 500 supernovae to classify the remaining supernovae where we were not able to observe the spectrum.”

Edo Berger, an astronomer at the CfA explained that by asking the artificial intelligence to answer specific questions, the results become increasingly more accurate. “The machine learning looks for a correlation with the original 500 spectroscopic labels. We ask it to compare the supernovae in different categories: color, rate of evolution, or brightness. By feeding it real existing knowledge, it leads to the highest accuracy, between 80- and 90-percent.”

Although this is not the first machine learning project for supernovae classification, it is the first time that astronomers have had access to a real data set large enough to train an artificial intelligence-based supernovae classifier, making it possible to create machine learning algorithms without the use of simulations.

“If you make a simulated light curve, it means you are making an assumption about what supernovae will look like, and your classifier will then learn those assumptions as well,” said Hosseinzadeh. “Nature will always throw some additional complications in that you did not account for, meaning that your classifier will not do as well on real data as it did on simulated data. Because we used real data to train our classifiers, it means our measured accuracy is probably more representative of how our classifiers will perform on other surveys.” As the classifier categorizes the supernovae, said Berger, “We will be able to study them both in retrospect and in real-time to pick out the most interesting events for detailed follow up. We will use the algorithm to help us pick out the needles and also to look at the haystack.”

MORE of the story and 1 more associated image / click image TOP of PAGE