Incorporating Measurement Error in Astronomical Object Classification

Sarah Shy, Hyungsuk Tak, Eric D. Feigelson, John D. Timlin, G. Jogesh Babu

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8 Scopus citations


Most general-purpose classification methods, such as support-vector machine (SVM) and random forest (RF), fail to account for an unusual characteristic of astronomical data: known measurement error uncertainties. In astronomical data, this information is often given in the data but discarded because popular machine learning classifiers cannot incorporate it. We propose a simulation-based approach that incorporates heteroscedastic measurement error into an existing classification method to better quantify uncertainty in classification. The proposed method first simulates perturbed realizations of the data from a Bayesian posterior predictive distribution of a Gaussian measurement error model. Then, a chosen classifier is fit to each simulation. The variation across the simulations naturally reflects the uncertainty propagated from the measurement errors in both labeled and unlabeled data sets. We demonstrate the use of this approach via two numerical studies. The first is a thorough simulation study applying the proposed procedure to SVM and RF, which are well-known hard and soft classifiers, respectively. The second study is a realistic classification problem of identifying high-z (2.9 ≤ z ≤ 5.1) quasar candidates from photometric data. The data are from merged catalogs of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Spitzer IRAC Equatorial Survey, and the Spitzer-HETDEX Exploratory Large-Area Survey. The proposed approach reveals that out of 11,847 high-z quasar candidates identified by a random forest without incorporating measurement error, 3146 are potential misclassifications with measurement error. Additionally, out of 1.85 million objects not identified as high-z quasars without measurement error, 936 can be considered new candidates with measurement error.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number6
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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