TV viewers will next week make the momentous discovery of a new planet in the Solar System, according to Professor Brian Cox. The popular scientist is convinced that, if Planet Nine exists, then people power will locate it, in the latest citizen science project run by the BBC’s Stargazing Live.
Professional astronomers have found compelling evidence that an undiscovered planet lurks in the outer reaches of the Solar System, far beyond Pluto. They say its presence is given away by small perturbations in the orbits of smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt.
Stargazing Live is being broadcast over three nights this year from Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in the Warrumbungle National Park, New South Wales. I spoke to Brian about what to expect and he was clearly excited about the planet search, which will be overseen by Chris Lintott, co-presenter of The Sky at Night.
Brian told me: “The citizen science project which is unbelievable this year. It will set out to find Planet Nine using data from a telescope at Siding Spring called SkyMapper. I talked to Chris at some length about this, and he is confident that if it’s there then we’ll see it.”
Viewers will get involved by visiting a Zooniverse website where they will be presented with photographic images to compare, taken by SkyMapper at different times. There are hundreds of thousands of images, which is too many for a few astronomers to check easily, but an army of enthusiasts should be able to go through them in no time. A similar search has begun using data from NASA’s WISE satellite, as we reported earlier.
Brian said: “It’s like an asteroid search but with photographs spread out over a much greater time interval. So you’re looking for a shifting dot against the background. The data’s there, so if the planet is there, and given that we have hundreds of thousands of views … which we do, we have half a million usually, easily … then we WILL find it.”
Previous Stargazing Live citizen science projects have been incredibly successful in detecting supernovae, pulsars, exoplanets, features on Mars and gravitationally-lensed galaxies, so no wonder the professor is bubbling with confidence.
The images that viewers will sift through will cover a particular region of sky which experts have pinned down for Planet Nine because of the gravitational effects seen on other bodies.
Brian told me: “Yes, it’s these kind of hints that something is going on, and obviously it will be in the ecliptic. So we are confident. We’re not confident that it’s there, although there are good enough hints that there might be something out there. But if there is, then we should see it, which will be just unbelievable.
“Chris is confident that if it is there, we’ll see it. One of our viewers will find it and it will be the biggest story in astronomy for decades! Since the discovery of Pluto, in 1930.
“If the citizen science project works it will be news around the world. Obviously. Chris is quite confident. We’ve got the big telescope, we’ve got the sky survey, we’ve got the data. We know what the magnitude limit is on the photographs, so if it’s there, it’s in there!”
Brian, a particle physicist who works to unlock the secrets of the Universe with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and once showed round Captain Jack from Doctor Who, added: “I think there’s a good chance viewers will find asteroids too while looking for Planet Nine. That’s the interesting thing about that data. There are a lot of things that move against the starry background so I’ll be very interested to see what crops up.”
Stargazing Live will be broadcast in the UK on BBC2 on the evenings of March 28, 29 and 30. This year the regular team, which also includes Dara Ó Briain and Liz Bonnin, will be joined by Australian astronomer Greg Quicke. There will also be a special show for Australian viewers on the ABC network a week after the UK broadcasts.
Update: Viewers joining the campaign achieved around 5 million classifications in three days, exhausting data from the SkyMapper telescope, and found four objects that have aroused the interest of planetary scientists. They may be possibly asteroids or Kuiper Belt objects and none is thought to be a planet. Participants are being encouraged to continue the hunt using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission in Zooniverse’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project.