NASA Needs Your Help Finding Alien Worlds

You can help NASA discover new planets using your personal telescope or even just your smartphone.

The space agency’s Exoplanet Watch program is looking for citizen scientists to help track planets outside our solar system, also known as exoplanets. Participants can use their own telescopes to search for exoplanets or study data from other telescopes using a computer or smartphone.

“With Exoplanet Watch, you can learn how to observe exoplanets and perform data analysis with the software that real NASA scientists use,” Rob Zellem, creator of Exoplanet Watch and astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said in a statement. . “We’re excited to show more people how exoplanet science is actually done.”

Related: 10 Amazing Exoplanet Discoveries

The Exoplanet Watch program began in 2018 as part of NASA’s Learning Universe Program, one of the agency’s science activation programs that allows anyone to experience how science is done and discover the universe.

At the time, there were limits on the number of people who could help view data collected by other telescopes. According to the statement, the program is now more accessible, allowing anyone to download and analyze the data.

There are over 5,000 confirmed exoplanets and the potential for millions more yet to be discovered. These worlds have a wide range of characteristics, such as twin suns, scorching surface temperatures, or clouds of glass.

Most exoplanets have been discovered using the transit method, which involves looking for a slight dimming of the host star as the planet passes in front of it. The time between transits indicates how long it takes an exoplanet to orbit its parent star, and the more transits are measured, the more accurately the length of the orbit is known. And if you have your own telescope, Exoplanet Watch can help you learn how to detect exoplanet transits, no matter what size telescope you use.

There are potentially hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way, and many of them likely have conditions suitable for life. (Image credit: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann)

“Exoplanet Watch combines observations of the same target by multiple skywatchers to provide a more accurate measurement,” the statement said. “Combining observations is also useful if the transit of a planet lasts longer than the time the star is visible in the sky for a single observer: several participants at different points on the globe can collectively observe the duration of a long transit.”

The joint observations helped discover an exoplanet called HD 80606 b, which NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will observe later this year. This planet was discovered through the combined observations of more than 20 Exoplanet Watch members.

“I hope this program will lower barriers to science for many people and inspire the next generation of astronomers to join our field,” Zellem said in a statement.

Even if you don’t have a telescope, you can take part in Exoplanet Watch. The program allows amateur astronomers to view 10 years of exoplanet observations collected by a small ground-based telescope south of Tucson, Arizona. New data from two telescopes at the JPL Table Mountain facility in Southern California will also be added to the program’s database this year for members to review.

Using this data helps refine measurements of planetary transits and identify any changes in the apparent brightness of stars, which could be a sign of flashes of light, called flares, or dark spots on the star’s surface.

“Involving volunteers in data sorting will significantly save computational and processing time,” the statement said. “This work will help scientists anticipate the variability of a particular star before they study its exoplanets with large, sensitive telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”

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