Hunt for Planet 9: how you can help NASA search for brown dwarfs and low-mass stars

The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 team says that technology is not advanced enough to analyze all of the images from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission. They need the human eye.

NASA scientists are trying to find new planets. And they need your help. 

Through its new website, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, NASA invites the average star-gazer to study grainy images of space in search of undiscovered worlds.

Between 2010 and 2011, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission scanned the entire sky to create the most complete survey of mid-infrared wavelengths to date. But the images gathered from the WISE mission still need to be studied.

“There are too many images for us to search through ourselves,” NASA said in a statement.

Citizen-scientists will look for real celestial objects such as brown dwarfs and low-mass stars. And if they are fortunate, participants may find one of two big-ticket discoveries: a star closer to the sun than its current neighbor Proxima Centauri, or maybe even the sun’s ninth planet. 

“There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.” 

The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 team says that technology is not advanced enough to analyze all of WISE’s images: they need the human eye.

“Automated searches don’t work well in some regions of the sky, like the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, because there are too many stars, which confuses the search algorithm,” University of California, Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Aaron Meisner, a physicist who specializes in analyzing WISE images, said in a press release.

The moving pictures are full of “blurry blobs of light,” called “ghosts.” These ghosts can move around, change color, and ultimately fool NASA’s analysis software.

“But with your powerful human eyes, you can help us recognize real objects of interest that move among these artifacts,” says the project’s website. “You’ll be able to tell what objects are real by the way they move around differently from the artifacts.” 

Through the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 website, anyone can study WISE’s images and tag moving objects that could potentially be more than a ghost. Professional astronomers will later follow-up on the tagged objects and use their expertise to see if a new discovery was made. And if any scientific publication comes of this project, the citizen-scientist will receive shared credit. 

By inviting the masses to comb through its data, NASA might even find the next Clyde Tombaugh. 

In 1930, American astronomer Mr. Tombaugh spent hours staring into a device called a “blink comparator” that tracks the movement of objects between two separate photographic plates – a strategy similar to the one employed by NASA today. And Tombaugh’s hard work paid off: after 7,000 hours of study, he discovered Pluto.

Finding a ninth planet would be very difficult – but not necessarily impossible. 

In 2016, California Institute of Technology astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence that a ninth planet could exist beyond Pluto. According to their calculations, Planet 9 would be 10 times larger than Earth and 1,000 times farther away from the sun. Just last month, a study from New Mexico State University suggested that Planet Nine could be a “rogue planet,” recently sucked in by the sun’s gravitational pull. 

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.

QR Code to Hunt for Planet 9: how you can help NASA search for brown dwarfs and low-mass stars
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/Spacebound/2017/0217/Hunt-for-Planet-9-how-you-can-help-NASA-search-for-brown-dwarfs-and-low-mass-stars
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe