Armchair astronomers are being given the chance to discover their own planet using NASA satellite data, thanks to a new website. And the scientists behind it say one of them could even make the first discovery of another Earth.
The site harnesses citizen power to check thousands of stars being watched by a NASA space telescope for evidence of alien worlds, dubbed exoplanets.
The web hunt is being led by Dr Chris Lintott, of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, who is co-presenter of the BBC’s The Sky At Night with Sir Patrick Moore.
He worked with researchers from the US’s Yale University to launch the site planethunters.org. It gets volunteers to spot any dip in a star’s brightness which marks the moment an orbiting planet passes in front of it.
NASA’s Kepler space observatory, launched in March last year, keeps constant watch on more than 100,000 stars in one small region of the Milky Way in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra.
It is the first telescope powerful enough to detect planets in the so-called Goldilocks zones which are “not too hot and not too cold” and where liquid water may be found. A NASA study has suggested that Earthlike planets could be commonplace in the galaxy.
Dr Lintott said: “The NASA team are starting with the most likely stars, and computers will detect many of these exoplanets automatically. But there’s a good chance that some of these alien worlds are lost in the noisy data from Kepler. What we’re hoping is that the human eye might be able to spot these lost worlds, rescuing planets that automatic techniques have missed.”
Planethunters is the latest of Dr Lintott’s Zooniverse projects that get ordinary people to help carry out real science. The first, Galaxy Zoo, in which volunteers classified thousands of galaxies, led to the discovery of previously unknown types of these vast cities of stars.
Dr Lintott said: “It’s tantalising to think that a volunteer using a website could be the first person to see ‘sunrise’ on a new alien world, maybe even a new Earth-like planet.
“We’ve already shown in other projects how much armchair astronomers can contribute to science but one of our users spotting a ‘lost’ exoplanet would be a fantastic achievement.”
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