NASA announced a new citizen science project called “Planet Patrol” which lets the volunteers help to find exoplanets using TESS Space Telescope (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) data. It is similar to another NASA citizen science project, “Backyard Worlds”, where volunteers or the “citizen scientists” are checking telescope images the same way the American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (February 4, 1906 – January 17, 1997) found Pluto, the original “Planet 9” in 1930. In this case, volunteers will collaborate with professional astronomers as they sort through a stockpile of star-studded images collected by NASA’s TESS Space Telescope (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite).
Planet Patrol project leader Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight has said that:
“Automated methods of processing TESS data sometimes fail to catch imposters that look like exoplanets. The human eye is extremely good at spotting such imposters, and we need citizen scientists to help us distinguish between the look-alikes and genuine planets.”
The new citizen science project also has a newly launched website called Planet Patrol.
In our galaxy Milky Way, there are billions of planets that orbit other stars than the Sun; these planets are called “exoplanets“. When an exoplanet’s orbit is lined up so that it passes between its star and the Earth, temporarily blocking the light of its star from our view, we call it a “transiting exoplanet”.
Surveys to find transiting exoplanets have taught us that worlds a few times the size of Earth are common but left us with many unanswered questions. Where are the closest Earth-size planets? Do they harbor alien life?
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission will take pictures of more than a million stars to search for planets orbiting them, called “transiting exoplanets”. Scientists expect this mission will see thousands of these transiting exoplanets when they pass in front of nearby stars and periodically block some of the starlight.
But sometimes when a star dims like that, it’s not because of a planet. Variable stars, eclipsing binary stars, blended stars, glitches in the data, etc., can cause a similar effect. And scientists need your help to spot these imposters!
At Planet Patrol, you’ll help researchers check the data from the TESS mission, one image at a time, to make sure that objects they suspect are planets really are planets.
Researchers say “With your help, we can find those small planets, long-period planets, planets around unusual host stars, and other rare systems that defeat automated search algorithms”.
Like the previous (now retired) Kepler Space Telescope, the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is using the transit method to detect exoplanets. But it covers an area 400 times larger than that covered by the Kepler mission.
TESS uses its four cameras to take full images of one patch of sky, called a sector, every 30 minutes for a month at a time. This long star allows TESS to see when planets pass in front of their stars, or transit, and dim their light.
Over the course of a year, TESS collects hundreds of thousands of snapshots, each containing thousands of possible planets – too many for scientists to examine without help.
Computers are very good at analyzing such data sets, but they’re not perfect. Even the most carefully crafted algorithms can fail when the signal from a planet is weak. Some of the most interesting exoplanets, like small worlds with long orbits, can be especially challenging.
Planet Patrol volunteers will help discover such worlds and will contribute to scientists’ understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve throughout the universe.
Planets aren’t the only source of changes in starlight, though. Some stars naturally change brightness over time, for example. In other cases, a star could actually be an eclipsing binary, where two orbiting stars alternately transit or eclipse each other. Or there may be an eclipsing binary in the background that creates the illusion of a planet transiting a target star. Instrumental quirks can also cause brightness variation. All these false alarms can trick automated planet-hunting processes.
On the new Planet Patrol website, participants will help astronomers sift through TESS images of potential planets by answering a set of questions for each – like whether it contains multiple bright sources or if it resembles stray light, rather than the light from a star. These questions help the researchers narrow down the list of possible planets for further follow-up study.
Planet Patrol is a collaboration between NASA, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers, and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the Internet. It is funded by the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.