If you’ve always wanted to discover the planet, now is your chance. Researchers are turning to the public for help in identifying exoplanets – planets orbiting stars outside our solar system.
The Planet Hunters Next-Generation Transit Search (NGTS) program, run by an international group of astronomers, contains five years of digital footage that needs to be carefully analyzed. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to spot stars that fade for a short time, possibly indicating a planet is passing in front of them.
Experts call it transit, but you don’t need any experience to try to spot it. All you need is a keen eye and a little patience to analyze images from the NGTS telescopes based at the Paranal Observatory of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.
“It’s nice to involve the public in our quest for planets around other stars,” says astrophysicist Peter Wheatley of the University of Warwick in the UK and head of NGTS. “We’re pretty sure there are some planets missing from our computer programs.”
“These will be the most unusual signals and possibly some of the most interesting planets. People are still smarter than machines, and I can’t wait to see what our volunteers dig up. “
There is a lot of data that needs to be processed: every 10 seconds, NGTS telescopes take pictures of thousands of stars in the sky. Algorithms are used to identify possible transit events, but these algorithms are not ideal.
The software can recognize dimmings that are not exoplanets, as well as skip dimmings that are – and this is where humans come in. If you choose to participate, you will be shown diagrams of light readings taken from stars in space, known as “folded” light curves, or a measurement of a star’s brightness as it changes over time, combined with software readings of the planet’s potential orbit.
Your job will be to classify these diagrams and identify the shapes they show, with volunteers and experts cross-checking each find to try and help identify exoplanets that would otherwise be overlooked.
“Automated algorithms create many possible transient events that must be considered by the NGTS team to confirm if they are real or not,” says astronomer Meg Schwamb of Queen’s University Belfast in the UK.
“Most of the things computers have discovered are not related to exoplanets, but a small handful of these candidates are new true planetary discoveries.”
Go to the Planet Hunters NGST page to get started. There is no application process or fees – all you need is a web browser and a passion for scientific discovery. Thousands of volunteers have already joined, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Discoveries like this are more common in civil science than you might think. From an Australian mechanic who spotted an unusual solar system with four planets to an amateur metal detector in Britain who stumbled upon a huge cache of ancient Roman treasures.
If you get stuck, you will receive a lot of help, and who knows – you may end up making a vital contribution to the search for planets outside our area.