A team of researchers is asking the public to help them sift through data from more than 1,600 stars in their quest to find new planets outside of our solar system.
The Carnegie Institution for Science, with the help of MIT, on Monday launched a database of observations about stars within 325 light years of Earth in hopes that amateur exoplanet hunters will turn up evidence of undiscovered worlds.
“Someone could go in there, mess around, and find something we missed,” said Jennifer Burt, a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT’s Kavli institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “There are a lot of exoplanets out there.”
Burt is working with Carnegie researchers on the Earthbound Planet Search project, which has used a device at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to examine whether nearby stars have exoplanets.
Orbiting planets can pull on a star, and that variation can come through in observations from Earth, which are collected in the newly released database. The database has a tutorial to help viewers understand what they’re looking at.
Burt said she believes the effort holds the potential to introduce many people to astronomy.
“This could be a great way to get undergrad and high school students involved in science,” she said. “This could be someone’s first real, tangible interaction with research. We’re inspiring the next generation of scientists and that’s awesome.”
There are also other benefits to this data being out in the open, Burt said.
Smaller scientific institutes that might not have had access to such research can now get involved, fueling other discoveries.
The database won’t show users what a planet looks like, but Burt said it can provide some key details.
“You can get the mass of a planet and see how long it takes to orbit its star,” Burt said. “From the mass and temperature (based on its orbit) we can start trying to figure out what sort of planet it is.”
Members of the public also, unfortunately, will not be able to name the planets they find.
“The only things in astronomy you can name are comets and asteroids,” Burt explained. “My mom was so upset when I couldn’t name the first exoplanet I found after her.”