Automating discovery and classification of transients and variable stars in the synoptic survey era

J. S. Bloom, J. W. Richards, P. E. Nugent, R. M. Quimby, M. M. Kasliwal, D. L. Starr, D. Poznanski, E. O. Ofek, S. B. Cenko, Nathaniel Butler, S. R. Kulkarni, A. Gal-Yam, N. Law

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Scopus citations


The rate of image acquisition in modern synoptic imaging surveys has already begun to outpace the feasibility of keeping astronomers in the real-time discovery and classification loop. Here we present the inner workings of a framework, based on machine-learning algorithms, that captures expert training and ground-truth knowledge about the variable and transient sky to automate (1) the process of discovery on image differences, and (2) the generation of preliminary science-type classifications of discovered sources. Since follow-up resources for extracting novel science from fast-changing transients are precious, self-calibrating classification probabilities must be couched in terms of efficiencies for discovery and purity of the samples generated. We estimate the purity and efficiency in identifying real sources with a two-epoch image-difference discovery algorithm for the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey. Once given a source discovery, using machine-learned classification trained on PTF data, we distinguish between transients and variable stars with a 3.8% overall error rate (with 1.7% errors for imaging within the Sloan Digital Sky Survey footprint). At >96% classification efficiency, the samples achieve 90% purity. Initial classifications are shown to rely primarily on context-based features, determined from the data itself and external archival databases. In the first year of autonomous operations of PTF, this discovery and classification framework led to several significant science results, from outbursting young stars to subluminous Type IIP supernovae to candidate tidal disruption events. We discuss future directions of this approach, including the possible roles of crowdsourcing and the scalability of machine learning to future surveys such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1175-1196
Number of pages22
JournalPublications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
Issue number921
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Data analysis and techniques

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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