Science 4 min read

How These Citizen Scientists Discovered New Planets (and you can, too)

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An international team of “citizen scientists” has discovered a star system comprised of at least five large exoplanets between the size of Earth and Neptune.

Recently, a string of major discoveries of exoplanets has been made, rekindling the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life and opening up new avenues of space colonization.

Last summer, NASA announced the detection of the first ever stratosphere outside our solar system. Discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope, the stratosphere belongs to WASP-121b, also called “Hot Jupiter”, which is an exoplanet in a star system around 900 light years from us.

As more and more Earth-like exoplanets are discovered, astronomers all over the world are looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the spring of 2019.

The highly-sensitive infrared JWST observatory would complement and build on discoveries already made by the Hubble Telescope and allow astronomers to observe the universe with a newfound precision.

You can volunteer as an Exoplanet Explorer from your home. Click To Tweet

Citizen Scientists to Help NASA Pour Through Data

With large-scale telescopes like the Kepler, Hubble, and soon, the Webb, there’s no shortage of data for astronomers and this is giving rise to another challenge, that of data analysis.

These mountains of raw data make it impossible for NASA scientists alone to analyze and glean useful information from these images and so, to solve this issue, NASA has come up with some new approaches.

To begin with, NASA has started using AI to analyze telescope data as an ongoing experiment which is leading to some promising results.

The latest discovery made thanks to machine learning was another exoplanet in the Kepler-90 star system, which now has eight known Earth-sized planets in the habitable-zone of the same star.

Another solution brought forward is to make this data available to the wider public. NASA has been experimenting with the use of crowdsourcing to analyze these mountains of images and the first fruits of this initiative are exciting.

The announcement of the discovery of five more exoplanets in the universe wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, as thousands of exoplanets have already been identified, verified and listed on numerous databases.

However, the method used to identify this planetary system is indeed a first, as thousands of “weekend scientists” worldwide contributed to its discovery.

How you can Become an Exoplanet Explorer

K2-138 is a planetary system in the constellation Aquarius that’s about 792 light-years from Earth, which, in cosmic terms, is pretty close.

When MIT announced the discovery of K2-138, they made sure to give thanks to the 10,000 or so citizen scientists around the world who took part in the “Exoplanet Explorer” project.

Behind the “Exoplanet Explorer” project are Ian Crossfield, a physicist at MIT, and Jesse Christiansen, a Caltech astronomer. Last year, Crossfield and Christiansen made a huge database collected by the K2 telescope available to the public on a citizen science platform.

“We put all this data online and said to the public, ‘Help us find some planets,’” said Crossfield. “It’s exciting, because we’re getting the public excited about science, and it’s really leveraging the power of the human cloud.”

Data from the project was first analyzed by a special signal-detection algorithm before citizen scientists got a closer look at them and tried to classify potential transit signals. For the project, users had to examine certain light curves and say whether it looked like a transit signal or not.

If 9 out of 10 people think a light curve is a transit signal, it is then passed over to professors Crossfield and Christiansen for further analysis.

10,000 people volunteered in the Exoplanet Explorer science program, and, over 48 hours, made about 2 million classifications.

Other than the K2-138 system and its 5 exoplanets, the public identified dozens of other interesting finds, including 44 Earth-sized exoplanets.

Set to launch next year, MIT is also leading TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) a two-year survey mission to look for exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars.

Professor Crossfield envisions enlisting the public help in the same way again as TESS data starts to flow.

Do you see any other possible uses for crowdsourcing in scientific research and analysis? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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