If you’ve always wanted to discover your very own planet, now’s your chance. Scientists are urging the public to help identify exoplanets – planets orbiting stars outside our own solar system.
Planet Hunter’s Next-Generation Transit Search (NGTS), run by an international group of astronomers, has five years of digital footage to sift through. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to spot stars that are briefly dimmed, which may indicate that a planet is passing in front of them.
It is known as a transit by the experts, but you do not need any experience to get involved in trying to spot one. All you need is a keen eye and a little patience to sift through the images collected by NGTS telescopes based at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile.
“It’s exciting to be able to involve the public in our search for planets around other stars,” said astrophysicist Peter Wheatley of the University of Warwick in the UK and head of NGTS. “We’m pretty sure our computer programs are missing some planets.”
“These will be the most unusual signals and then probably some of the most interesting planets. Humans are still smarter than machines, and I can’t wait to see what our volunteers come up with.”
There is plenty of data to get through: Every 10 seconds, NGTS telescopes capture images of thousands of stars in the sky. Algorithms are used to mark possible transit events, but these algorithms are not perfect.
The software can select attenuations that are not exoplanets, as well as miss attenuations that are – and this is where people come in. If you decide to get involved, you’ll see charts of light measurements taken by stars out in space, known as ‘folded’ light curves, or measuring a star’s brightness as it changes over time combined with the software’s reading of a planet’s potential orbits .
Your job will be to categorize these charts and identify the shapes they show, with volunteers and experts cross-checking each find to try to help identify exoplanets that have otherwise been missed.
“The automated algorithms produce lots of possible transit events for candidates to be reviewed by the NGTS team to confirm whether they are genuine or not,” said astronomer Meg Schwamb of Queen’s University Belfast in the UK.
“Most things computers discover are not due to exoplanets, but a small handful of these candidates are new bona fide planetary discoveries.”
Go to the Planet Hunters NGST page to get started. There is no application process or fee – all you need is a web browser and a passion for making scientific discoveries. Thousands of volunteers have already committed themselves, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
These types of civic science discoveries are more common than you might think. From the Australian mechanic who discovered an unusual solar system with four planets, to the amateur metal detector from Britain who encountered a huge cache of ancient Roman treasures.
Lots of help is available if you are stuck and who knows – you may end up making an important contribution in the hunt for planets outside our neighborhood.