September 21, 2011
Astronomers at Yale University have announced the discovery of the first two potential exoplanets found by the online citizen scientist Planet Hunters program. Users of the Planet Hunters program analyze scientific data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission to assist astronomers in finding planets orbiting nearby stars. The most likely exoplanet candidates are then studied using the 10-meter telescopes of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to confirm the planets’ existence.
Since the online citizen science project Planet Hunters launched last December, 40,000 web users from around the world have been helping professional astronomers analyze the light from 150,000 stars in the hopes of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting around them. A new study on the discovery is slated to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars,” said Yale astronomer and exoplanet expert Debra Fischer, who helped launch the citizen science project.
The candidate planets orbit their host stars with periods ranging from 10 to 50 days—much shorter than the 365 days it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun—and have radii that range in size from two-and-a-half to eight times Earth’s radius. Despite those differences, one of the two candidates could be a rocky, Earth-mass planet (as opposed to a giant gas planet like Jupiter), although they aren’t in the so-called “habitable zone” where liquid water, and therefore life as we know it, could exist.
Next, the professional astronomy team – a collaboration between astronomers at Yale, the University of Oxford and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago
—used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to analyze the spectra of the host stars. The spectra reveal whether the stars are wobbling, and by how much and at what speed – all of which reveal clues to the planets orbiting them.
The Kepler team had already announced they had identified 1,200 exoplanet candidates and that they would follow up on the highest potential ones, but they had discarded the two found by Planet Hunters users for various technical reasons that led them to believe they weren’t promising candidates.
“These two candidates might have gone undetected without Planet Hunters and its citizen scientists,” said Meg Schwamb, a Yale researcher and Planet Hunters co-founder. “Obviously Planet Hunters doesn’t replace the analysis being done by the Kepler team. But it has proven itself to be a valuable tool in the search for other worlds.”
Users found the two candidates in the first month of Planet Hunters operations using data the Kepler mission made publicly available. The Planet Hunters group sent the top 10 candidates found by the citizen scientists to the Kepler team, who analyzed the data and determined that two of the 10 met their criteria for being classified as planet candidates. The two candidates were flagged as potential planets by several dozen different Planet Hunters users, as the same data are analyzed by more than one user.
“Scientists on the Kepler team obtained the data, but the public helped finance the project with their tax dollars,” Fischer said. “It’s only right that this data has been pushed back into the public domain, not just as scientifically digested results but in a form where the public can actively participate in the hunt. The space program is a national treasure—a monument to America’s curiosity about the Universe. It is such an exciting time to be alive and to see these incredible discoveries being made.”
Planet Hunters users are now sifting through the next 90 days of Kepler data in the hopes of adding to the count. “This is what we found after just a preliminary glance through the first round of Kepler data,” Fischer said. “There’s no doubt that, with each new round of data, there will be more discoveries to come.”
# # #
Learn more about Planet Hunters:
Watch a video of Planet Hunters co-founders Debra Fischer and Kevin Schawinski explaining the project:
The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. The twin telescopes feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectroscopy and a world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics system which removes much of the interference caused by Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. The Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.
(Adapted from a press release by Yale University)