Hey, alien hunters: NASA's alien planet archive is open for business

"The entire world can help us" find exoplanets (alien planets), says a Kepler scientist. NASA is throwing open its list of possible exoplanets to anyone who wants to look.

T. Pyle / JPL-Caltech / NASA-Ames
This artist's conception depicts the Kepler-10 star system, located about 560 light-years away, near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations. Kepler has discovered two planets around this star. Kepler-10b, the dark spot against the yellow sun, is (so far!) the smallest known rocky exoplanet, or planet outside our solar system.

Scientists with NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft have revamped the mission's online archive of alien worlds, opening up the database for the entire world to see.

Researchers are now posting all exoplanet sightings by the Kepler observatory into a single, comprehensive website called the "NASA Exoplanet Archive." Instead of going through the long planet confirmation process before making data publicly available, since December of last year, scientists have started shoveling out all the data Kepler collects into a comprehensive list.

"When we make that list, right away it goes to the archive," Kepler mission team member Steve Howell told SPACE.com during the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif., this month. "So the day we know about the list, the archive knows about the list. And then everybody, including us, can work on that list. But that list is dynamic so if we, or a community person, makes an observation and says, 'Hey, I looked at this planet candidate but it's really an eclipsing binary,' then that entry in the archive will be changed."

The archive has information about the size, orbital period and other metrics of any possible planet discovered and investigated by Kepler.

"It's all in real time," Howell said. "The sausage-making process is exposed."

Before the new archive was debuted, astronomers were already doing creative work with the data. One created a visually stunning video of every known Kepler planet candidate — 2,299 unconfirmed exoplanets at the time — orbiting one central point.

The Kepler team’s new "open" attitude toward data release is giving everybody, not just members of the scientific community, a chance to do some hands-on scientific research by building their own experiments, Howell said.

A group of high school students has already taken data from groups of planets observed by Kepler and mapped them against a map of known stars looking for a pattern. Howell doesn’t think they'll see much, but he's glad that they have the opportunity to get creative.

"The entire world can help us with this Kepler data," Howell said. "I don't see any downside."

 Planet Hunters, a collective of amateur astronomers, recently found 42 new alien planets using Kepler data that was publicly available prior to the launch of the new archive system.

It would be difficult for Kepler scientists to get their jobs done without the help of amateur astronomers around the globe, mission researchers said. By making the exoplanet archive more accessible, it could mean that more planets are found and confirmed in shorter amounts of time than ever before.

More people sifting through the wealth of data collected by Kepler means that scientists have a better chance of finding even more planets circling distant stars, Howell added.

Since its launch in 2009, NASA's Kepler spacecraft has flagged more than 2,300 objects as possible alien worlds. Although only about 100 have been confirmed, scientists expect that at least 80 percent could be certifiable exoplanets.

Currently, Kepler has entered a "safe mode" after researchers spotted an issue with one of the spacecraft's three reaction wheels that are responsible for orienting the telescope. The malfunction has stalled science observations, but researchers hope that the issue will be resolved by Sunday (Jan. 27).

To explore the new NASA Exoplanet Archive, visit: http://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/

You can follow SPACE.com staff writer Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer. Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Face

book & Google+.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.