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MIT, Caltech discover new exoplanets — with a little help from 10,000 friends

An artist’s rendering of the five new planets orbiting the star within the constellation Aquarius. The exoplanets are two to three times larger than Earth.
Christine Daniloff/MIT
An artist’s rendering of the five new planets orbiting the star within the constellation Aquarius. The exoplanets are two to three times larger than Earth.

Five planets orbiting a star have been discovered outside our solar system, thanks to a crowdsourcing effort that enlisted the help of about 10,000 citizen scientists worldwide to comb through data collected by the Kepler space telescope, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said.

The exoplanets are orbiting a star in the constellation Aquarius, nearly 620 light years from Earth, MIT said in a statement. They are two to three times larger than Earth.

The new findings were presented Thursday by researchers from MIT and the California Institute of Technology at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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The data from the telescope are composed of light curves, or graphs of light intensity from stars. Dips in starlight indicate transits, or objects crossing in front of the stars, MIT said.

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Ian Crossfield, assistant professor of physics at MIT, who at the time was a Sagan fellow at the University of California at Santa Cruz, worked last year with fellow astronomer Jesse Christiansen at Caltech to enlist volunteers for the Exoplanet Explorers program, MIT said.

“We put all this data online and said to the public, ‘Help us find some planets,’ ” Crossfield said in the statement. “It’s exciting because we’re getting the public excited about science, and it’s really leveraging the power of the human cloud.”

Using a citizen scientist platform called Zooniverse, people were able to review actual light curves and click “yes” or “no,” depending on whether they thought it looked as if a transit had taken place.

The researchers got a boost when an Australian television program, “Stargazing Live,” featured it, MIT said.

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“It turns out the world is big enough that there’s a lot of people who are interested in doing some amateur science,” Crossfield said.

“We also look at the data with machines, but the human brain provides a complementary approach that can pick out signals missed by computers,” he said in an e-mail.

Crossfield and Christiansen, along with NASA astronomer Geert Barentsen, looked at what the citizen scientists had flagged and determined that more than 200 of them were objects of interest.

They did further research on the five planets in the new system, K2-138 — the single biggest system that was found — before submitting their work to the Astrophysical Journal, which has accepted it.

“We are working on finalizing analysis and follow-up observations from ground-based telescopes of these other systems, which we also intend to eventually publish,” Crossfield said.