Citizen Scientists Help NASA Search for Exoplanet Hideouts

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Citizen scientists in the general public are helping NASA scan the cosmos in search of new worlds, and hey, they’re not that bad at it. Eight people, with no formal training in astrophysics, may have just uncovered the next planetary hot spot: a circumstellar disk — aka a planet-forming ring of gas and dust — encircling a nearby star 212 light-years from the sun.

In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the eight-citizen scientists detail their discovery of AWI0005x3s, a red dwarf star located in the Carina association — an off-shoot of the cosmically violent Carina Nebula. A warm circumstellar disk makes AWI0005x3s a prime planetary nursery, and its short distance from Earth (from an astronomical perspective) makes it an easy target for follow-up studies. In fact, most of the exoplanets imaged so far are nestled in disks similar to this one.

The discovery of any sort of exoplanet breeding ground constantly raises hopes of finding a potentially habitable world, which could be home to extraterrestrial life, or could sustain a human colony in the far future. If any planets orbiting AW1005x3s are residing in the habitable zone where liquid water has a potential to form, the chances those planets could sustain life dramatically spike.

Most of these types of planetary disks fade away in less than 30 million years, Steven Silverberg, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, and lead author of the paper said in a news release by NASA.

“This particular red dwarf is a candidate member of the Carina association, which would make it around 45 million years old,” he explained. “It’s the oldest red dwarf system with a disk we’ve seen in one of these associations.”

Artist conception of the newly discovered disk.

Jonathan Holden

In 2014, NASA launched a special website for citizen science projects called Disk Detective. Here people from across the world can study data from several stellar surveys, including actual data collected from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission (aka WISE) — which mapped the entire sky’s infrared emission.

Since its launch two years ago, Disk Detective has conducted over two million classifications of stellar objects thanks to the help of about 30,000 citizen scientists.

“Without the help of the citizen scientists examining these objects and finding the good ones, we might never have spotted this object,” explained Marc Kuchner, a NASA astrophysicist who spearheads the Disk Detective project. If it turns out scientists identify a potentially habitable world in this corner of the universe, we’ll have ordinary people with a curiosity for space to thank for the discovery.

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