Become a Planet Hunter!

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Monday, December 20, 2010

What a busy week in astronomy! With last week's Geminid meteor shower, tonight's total lunar eclipse, and the winter solstice tomorrow, it's easy to overlook another event that may not be as big, but could be just as much fun. On December 16, Planet Hunters (www.planethunters.org) launched, allowing anyone to search for planets beyond our solar system from the comfort of their own living room — or wherever they keep a computer.

The Kepler mission has sought out exoplanets for more than a year, and now you can help astronomers sift through its copious data on the citizen science website Planet Hunters. Illustration by NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel
The citizen science project comes from the Zooniverse community, the same folks behind Galaxy Zoo (www.galaxyzoo.org), which allows anyone with an Internet connection and some free time to contribute astronomical research by classifying galaxy shapes. Its success has spurred more than 20 published papers with non-scientist co-authors, and has shown that humans still have an edge over computers in picking out patterns and understanding information.

Planet Hunters will also enlist the aid of non-scientists — this time in sorting through data from NASA's Kepler mission, which has searched for planets orbiting other stars (called exoplanets) since its launch in March 2009. The orbiting telescope has collected tons of data as it has specifically looked for stars with periodic dimming, potentially caused by a planet crossing in front of it. There's too much information for any one scientist to analyze, and computer programs are helpful but still not foolproof. That's where Planet Hunters comes in; users log on to the site and answer simple questions about a target star's brightness over time. If the star seems to have a pattern of repetitive dimming, it’s flagged as the possible home of an exoplanet.

So whether you're getting tired of the cold air hampering your observing or you just enjoy the thought of “discovering” exoplanets for yourself, give Planet Hunters a shot and see what you think. It might just prove a nice relaxing respite from these busy times.

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