Have Spare Time? Try To Discover A Planet | KUOW News and Information

Have Spare Time? Try To Discover A Planet

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 20, 2017 8:22 am

Astronomers are offering the general public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to discover a new planet in our solar system.

Many astronomers now think there may be a massive, undiscovered planet lurking in the far reaches of our solar system. Right now, however, the existence of this planet is theoretical. So the hunt is on to actually capture an image of it.

The obvious way to look for the new planet is to point large telescopes at the patch of sky where theory says it ought to be.

But there's another way: scour images of the sky that have already been taken, hoping one of those images contains the planet.

Astronomer Adam Schneider of Arizona State University is trying the latter approach. He's new to planet hunting: "I'm more of a brown dwarf person myself, brown dwarf and low mass stars," he says. But brown dwarfs and low mass stars have something in common with the putative planet ... they give off infrared light. And NASA's WISE telescope views the sky at infrared wavelengths. WISE has taken a trove of pictures of the sky.

"We have the entire sky to go through," says Schneider. That's both good and bad news. "It's a bonus, in that we have the whole sky, so we're not going to miss anything," he says. "But it's also why we need citizen scientists because it's just too much to look at for one scientist or even a group of scientists."

By citizen scientists, Schneider means anyone — no special skills required. You just go to a website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, sign up, and start scanning the WISE images.

The images are presented like a flip-book. You see four images of the same patch of sky, taken at different times. Because they're so far away, the bright stars in the image appear to remain in the same place from one picture to the next. But a closer moving object such as a planet or a wandering brown dwarf will appear to move against the starry backdrop.

Now you may be wondering, why do they need people to search for moving objects? Can't a computer do this?

"Computer algorithms are not very good, the more and more stars that get involved," says Jacqueline Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History and another member of the citizen science project. "The human eye helps tremendously. It's much faster, it can be very trustworthy," more than a computer algorithm, she says.

That doesn't mean spotting moving items is easy. I went to the website and tried. I was terrible at it. Faherty told me not to feel bad.

"To be honest I'm really bad at it as well," she says. "But I want people with good eyes to do it, because when they're good at it, they're really good at it."

Even if you correctly spot something moving in the images, in might not be the undiscovered planet. It could be a brown dwarf star or some other faint object fairly close to the sun.

But Adam Schneider says you could hit the jackpot.

"Literally anyone — you, me, anyone you talk to — can potentially log on and make that discovery," he says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Astronomers are offering the general public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the chance to discover a new planet in our solar system. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has the lowdown on this big idea.

JOE PALCA: Many astronomers now think there may be a massive, undiscovered planet lurking in the far reaches of our solar system. But right now the existence of this planet is theoretical. So the hunt is on to actually capture an image of it. One of the astronomers involved is Adam Schneider of Arizona State University, although he's only recently turned to planet hunting.

ADAM SCHNEIDER: I am more of a brown dwarf person myself - brown dwarfs and low mass stars.

PALCA: Brown dwarfs are objects somewhere between a small star and a giant planet. And they have something in common with the putative planet people are looking for. They give off infrared light. And it just so happens that NASA has a space telescope called WISE that measures infrared light. And WISE has taken whole bunches of pictures of the sky.

SCHNEIDER: We have the entire sky to go through.

PALCA: Schneider says that's both good news and bad news.

SCHNEIDER: It's a bonus in that we have the whole sky, so we're not going to miss anything. But that's also why we need citizen scientists because it's just too much to look at for one scientist or even a group of scientists.

PALCA: By citizen scientist, Schneider means anyone. No special skills required. You go to a website called Backyard Worlds, sign up and start scanning the WISE telescope images.

Jacqueline Faherty is an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History. She says to spot the planet in an image, you have to find something that's shifted its position against a background of stationary stars. Now, you may be wondering, why can't a computer do this?

JACQUELINE FAHERTY: Computer algorithms are not very good, the more and more stars that get involved. The human eye helps tremendously. It's much faster. It can be very trustworthy.

PALCA: But I have to tell you, spotting those moving items isn't easy. I went to the website and tried, and I was terrible at it. Faherty told me not to feel bad.

FAHERTY: To be honest, I'm really bad at it as well. But I want people with good eyes to do it because when they're good at it, they're really good at it.

PALCA: Even if you correctly spot something moving in the images, it might not be the undiscovered planet. It could be some other faint object wandering among the stars. But Adam Schneider says you could hit the jackpot.

SCHNEIDER: Literally anyone - you, me, anyone you talk to - can log on and potentially make that discovery.

PALCA: And if you are the discoverer, you get to propose a name for the new planet. Planet Palca has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUVIAN'S "THROUGH THE NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.