The crowd finds new exo-planets

Astronomers have confirmed the first discovery of a planet in a four star system. But one of the interesting aspects was how it was found.

PH1 was spotted first by two users of the Planet Hunters website combing through the mounds of data captured by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, a photometer, or light meter telescope, launched into orbit above Earth in March 2009, specifically designed to hunt for Earthlike, habitable planets around other stars based on “light curves,” brightness measurements from thosestars that may dip if a foreign object, such as a planet, crosses in front of them.

However, the Kepler mission produces an enormous volume of data, capturing brightness of 150,000 new stars every 30 minutes, on Kepler’s quest to survey the region of the Milky Way Galaxy around Earth.

Planet Hunters, an offshoot of the citizen science website Zooniverse, believes that human volunteers may be better equipped to sort through the numerous “light curves” than computer algorithms, “because of the outstanding pattern recognition of the human brain.”

Two citizen scientist members of Planet Hunters, Robert Gagliano and Kian Jek, first caught dips in the brightness around the star system that they thought could be evidence of a planet, and they brought their findings to the attention of Megan Schwamb, an astronomer at Yale who also works on Planet Hunters.

Schwamb then assembled a team of 10 experts to go over the observations and verify they were evidence of a planet, and rule out false positives.

PlanetHunters is just one example of broader roles for citizens in science as outlined by Michael Nielsen in his book Reinventing Discovery.

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