Website funded by NASA enables citizens to search for objects beyond Neptune
With the groundbreaking discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the red dwarf TRAPPIST-1, readers might be interested to know that NASA has a website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 – which allows everyday people to participate in the search for new worlds.
The website provides interactive images of the universe provided by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope, which was launched in 2009. WISE has discovered thousands of small planets and numerous star clusters. It also contributed to the discovery of the first known Trojan asteroid in one of Earth’s Lagrangian points.
Data from the orbiting telescope are processed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
In 2010 and 2011, WISE provided the most comprehensive infrared survey of the entire sky ever conducted.
In 2012, WISE was put into hibernation. It was reactivated in 2013, and, after its hydrogen coolant was depleted, its remaining capability was utilized for a three-year mission called NEOWISE, searching for near-Earth asteroids and comets that might pose a danger of collision with Earth.
Lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said, “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored. 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 new website utilizes WISE data to search for planets beyond the Solar System. In 2016, scientists at Pasadena noticed that a number of objects in the far outer Solar System behaved as though affected by an undiscovered planet – hence the name Planet 9. If Planet 9 does exist, it could be bright enough to show up in WISE photographs.
Astronomers can identify objects in or near the Solar System because they move across the sky at a different rate than the stars. Some of this research can be done by computer, but human eyes are more capable of differentiating actual objects from image artifacts caused by the presence of other objects in a crowded part of the sky, or scattering of light within WISE’s instruments.
However, the data can also be used to discover more distant objects in the universe, like brown dwarfs.
Team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said, “Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter. By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.”
Users of the website can page through “flipbooks” which show how portions of the sky have changed over a period of years. If a user notices a luminosity that has changed position relative to the stars, the user can flag it and it will be given priority by the science team and followed up by professional astronomers.
Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, specializes in analyzing WISE images. “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” Meisner said.
The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 website can be found here: Zooniverse
Video Courtesy of NASA Goddard
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.