Monday, December 20, 2010

Be a Planet Hunter!

You know the scene. You’re milling around the hors d’oeuvres table at your next cocktail party and a stranger comes up for a little small talk and blandly solicits “So what do you like to do in your free time?” Some typical banter-time responses might involve the mundane – comedy workshops, watercolors, tapas bars, or maybe even hang-gliding adventures.  But wouldn’t it be cool to reply to the question confidently and emphatically, “I’m a planet hunter!”

Well now you really can be with the launch of Planet Hunters, a website that allows anyone to sift through bits of the NASA Kepler’s voluminous data, obtained as the space telescope gazes at some 150,000 stars. Launched in 2009, Kepler monitors the brightness of these stars over several years. For those stars that host planets, and for those planets whose orbits are aligned with Kepler’s line of sight, the telescope’s light sensors register a dip in the star’s brightness when a planet passes across the star’s face, a sort of partial eclipse known as a “transit.”

At last count, Kepler has located eight exoplanets and several hundred more candidates awaiting confirmation. The problem is that computer methods designed to detect exoplanets might miss something. This is where the public can play a role. Humans have an innate ability for fast and efficient pattern recognition. So the Planet Hunter website presents Kepler light curves and allows the user to look for the dimming that signifies the possible presence of a planet.

Planet Hunters which recently launched on December 16, 2010, is part of the popular galaxy classification site – Galaxy Zoo. Here’s the best part - if the Planet Hunters project correctly identifies a new exoplanet, the user who identifies its presence will be listed as a co-author on the scientific paper announcing the discovery. What more can an amateur scientist ask for? So at that next cocktail hour you can proudly proclaim “I discovered an exoplanet, Kepler 11d.” So cool!

[NOTE: the Planet Hunters website does not support the Microsoft IE browser for some reason.]