Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NASA Needs Planet Hunters

Looking for something to do in your spare time besides playing Angry Birds? Consider becoming an official Planet Hunter and find planets outside our solar system.

The Planet Hunters program is a collaboration between astronomers at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Yale and the University of Oxford. There are currently 40,000 people participating in the Planet Hunter program. They are volunteers, with no scientific experience (which is to say, none is required to participate.) Their job is to visually analyze computer graphs which depict light emitted from distant stars, in the hopes of finding the requisite dips and patterns which signify a planet transiting their star.

This week two planets found by the Planet Hunters were confirmed by NASA.

The best part about this program is the fact that anyone, even children, can participate. Computers search the data first, but they lack the precision needed to confirm some transits. That's where human eyes come in. Just by looking at the patterns we can do a better job of seeing what is happening.

The finding of hundreds of exo-planets (planets outside our solar system) has advanced astronomy more in the past decade than in the previous hundred years. With millions of candidates for possible planets, and tens of thousands of members of the Planet Hunters group helping, it is likely even more will be discovered in the coming months and years.

And everyone is welcome to participate in the search.

“A lot of times, we don’t know to anticipate in advance something unusual in the data. And so that’s clearly where the Planet Hunters, the public, [have] been coming in,” said Debra Fischer, professor of astronomy at Yale University and co-founder of Planet Hunters.

So far, there are about 40,000 users of Planet Hunters across the U.S. and about 90 other countries. It’s intuitive and simple enough that even a child could use it. Teachers are already using it in the classroom, Fischer said.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for even children to become involved, and to really learn what the scientific process is, what the scientific method is, and that thrill of discovery at an age where they still have the opportunity to make decisions about their future” said Natalie Batalha, co-investigator for NASA's Kepler mission, which has discovered more than 1,200 candidate planets so far.

All you have to do is sign up with Planet Hunters and start answering questions about graphs, which represent data about light from distant stars. The website guides you through what to look for – the dips and v-shapes corresponding to a dimming of light may mean a planet has transited, or passed in front of a star during a certain time period.

Click here to read more about the Planet Hunters.

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