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News Article | February 15, 2017
Site: www.eurekalert.org

NASA is inviting the public to help search for possible undiscovered worlds in the outer reaches of our solar system and in neighboring interstellar space. A new website, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, lets everyone participate in the search by viewing brief movies made from images captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The movies highlight objects that have gradually moved across the sky. "There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "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." WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth's orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed "Planet Nine." If Planet Nine -- also known as Planet X -- exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data. The search also may discover more distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space. "Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter," said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds." Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's instruments. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It's a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week. On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of "flipbooks," which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. "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," said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, visit: For more information about NASA's WISE mission, visit:


News Article | February 17, 2017
Site: news.yahoo.com

Citizen scientists can join an online hunt for icy worlds, brown dwarfs and other yet-to-be-discovered objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, using a technique that’s not all that different from the method that led to Pluto’s discovery 87 years ago. “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” could even lead to the discovery of a super-Earth that may (or may not) be hidden on the solar system’s far frontier. The icy world known as Planet Nine or Planet X is only theoretical for now, but its existence would explain some of the puzzles surrounding the weird orbits of some far-out objects. The “Backyard Worlds” website offers up millions of mini-movies that incorporate infrared imagery from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The movies show the same patch of sky at different times, going back and forth like a flipbook. The project involves getting volunteers to watch the movies and look for telltale changes in the positions of points of light between one view and the other. Promising prospects are flagged for a follow-up look by professional astronomers. Back in 1930, Lowell Observatory astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used a contraption known as a blink comparator to flip between photographic plates. The desk-sized device helped him spot a dot that turned out to be the dwarf planet Pluto. Today, computers conduct similar analyses of images much more quickly to identify dwarf planets, asteroids and the failed stars known as brown dwarfs. But sometimes the software gets tripped up by image artifacts, and sometimes human vision can pick up on the patterns that computers miss. The organizers of “Backyard Worlds” are counting on that human factor. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” the project’s lead researcher, Marc Kuchner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release. “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.” Participants will win a share of the credit in any scientific discoveries that the project brings to light. “‘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,” Berkeley team member Aaron Meisner said in today’s news release. The project is a collaboration involving NASA, the University of California at Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse. Are far-out planets not your thing? There’s more to choose from: Zooniverse has pioneered lots of other online citizen science projects over the years, including Galaxy Zoo, Ancient Lives and Fossil Finder.


News Article | February 16, 2017
Site: news.yahoo.com

Think you can find Planet 9? A new citizen-science project lets participants search for hidden solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, where a possible ninth planet may lie. The Zooniverse website enlists the public's help in performing scientific research. For example, the Planet Hunters project looked for signs of alien planets transiting their parent stars. The Zooniverse projects now span a wide range of topics, from space to literature. The newest entry in the Zooniverse space-projects list is called Backyard Worlds: Find Planet 9. You can learn more about the project at Zooniverse's Backyard Worlds website here. For this project, participants are asked to look through data collected by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and help to separate real objects from system artifacts that can look like real objects (false positives). Citizen scientists will look for spots of light that move across the sky, signaling that those points of light are objects relatively close to Earth compared to the background stars. [The Evidence for 'Planet Nine' in Images (Gallery)] Like all of the Zooniverse projects, Backyard Worlds is asking citizen scientists to do a job that can't be done by a computer. "While it's possible to process the data to find moving points of light, we can't get rid of all the noise," according to the Zooniverse website. "Spiky images of stars, especially variable stars, are everywhere. Worse, are the optical ghosts, blurry blobs of light that have been scattered around inside WISE's instruments. These can hop back and forth, or even change color. These artifacts can easily fool our image processing software. "But with your powerful human eyes, you can help us recognize real objects of interest that move among these artifacts," the description reads. "You'll be able to tell what objects are real by the way they move around differently from the artifacts." The website compares the method used in Backyard Worlds to the approach taken by Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Tombaugh used photographic plates and a device called a blink comparator to look for moving objects in the night sky. Beyond the orbit of Neptune lies a belt of cold, icy objects called the Kuiper Belt; beyond that is a sphere of similar objects called the Oort Cloud. There are a few dwarf planets in addition to Pluto that lie in this region. Between Neptune and the nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, there may be a planet about the size of Neptune, according to some recent predictions by a group of scientists at the California Institute of Technology. The research team also says the object is very likely visible with modern telescopes and could be discovered in the next year. "There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement from NASA. "Because there's so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light," Kuchner said. But WISE searches for infrared light, which can be emitted by objects that are too cool to emit visible light. (Even human bodies radiate infrared light.) The WISE mission scanned the entire sky in 2009 and 2010, uncovering distant galaxies, black holes and objects called brown dwarfs, which are larger than Jupiter but smaller than dwarf stars. There may be a hidden population of brown dwarfs in the region just outside the solar system, according to the Zooniverse website. The WISE spacecraft was also used to search for near-Earth asteroids. "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," Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images, said in the statement. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration among NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, according to the statement from NASA. Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.


News Article | February 22, 2017
Site: www.futurity.org

Elusive planets and dim failed stars may be lurking around the edges of our solar system, and astronomers want the public’s help to hunt them down. By using a new website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, anyone can help search for objects far beyond the orbit of our farthest planet, Neptune, by viewing brief “flipbook” movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. A faint spot seen moving through background stars might be a new and distant planet orbiting the sun or a nearby brown dwarf. WISE’s infrared images cover the entire sky about six times over. This has allowed astronomers to search the images for faint, glowing objects that change position over time, which means they are relatively close to Earth. Objects that produce their own faint infrared glow would have to be large, Neptune-size planets or brown dwarfs, which are slightly smaller than stars. Physicist Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, specializes in analyzing WISE images and has automated the search using computers, but he jumped at the idea by NASA astronomer Marc Kuchner to ask the public to eyeball the millions of WISE images. Scientists launched the planet and brown dwarf search February 15. “Automated searches don’t work well in some regions of the sky, like the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, because there are too many stars, which confuses the search algorithm,” Meisner says. Last month he published the results of an automated survey of 5 percent of the WISE data, which revealed no new objects. But, online volunteers “using the powerful ability of the human brain to recognize motion” may be luckier. “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,” he says. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune, the farthest known planet in our solar system, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” says Kuchner, the lead researcher and an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “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.” People have long theorized about unknown planets far beyond Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto, but until recently there was no evidence to support the idea. Last year, however, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of an as-yet-unseen ninth planet in the solar system’s outer reaches. This “Planet 9” would be similar in size to Neptune, but up to a thousand times farther from the sun than Earth, and would orbit the sun perhaps once every 15,000 years. It would be so faint as to have so far evaded discovery. At the moment, the existence of Planet 9 is still under debate. Meisner thinks it’s more likely that volunteers will find brown dwarfs in the solar neighborhood. While Planet 9 would look very blue in WISE time-lapse animations, brown dwarfs would look very red and move across the sky more slowly. WISE images have already turned up hundreds of previously unknown brown dwarfs, including the sun’s third- and fourth-closest known neighbors. Meisner hopes that the Backyard Worlds search will turn up a new nearest neighbor to our sun. “We’ve pre-processed the WISE data we’re presenting to citizen scientists in such a way that even the faintest moving objects can be detected, giving us an advantage over all previous searches,” he says. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for later follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011, then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission: assisting NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects—asteroids and comets in the vicinity of our planet. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new website uses all of the WISE and NEOWISE data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system, including the putative Planet 9. If Planet 9 exists and is as bright as some predict, it could show up in WISE data. WISE is uniquely suited for discovering extremely cold brown dwarfs, which can be invisible to the biggest ground-based telescopes despite being very close, Meisner says. “Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter,” said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.” Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration among NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers, and educators that collectively develops and manages citizen-science projects on the internet. Zooniverse will spread the word among its many citizen volunteers. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE, part of NASA’s Explorers Program.


News Article | February 16, 2017
Site: motherboard.vice.com

No new planets have been spotted in our solar system since Neptune was identified in 1846 (I'm excluding Pluto, discovered in 1930, because it has been since demoted to a dwarf planet). But this doesn't necessarily mean that our solar family is complete. There may be stragglers out there we haven't found yet. Over the past year, mounting evidence suggests that a Neptune-sized world is orbiting the Sun at a distance of at least 30 billion kilometers (19 billion miles), about 200 times the orbit of the Earth around our star. The gravitational signature of this mysterious "Planet Nine," as it has been dubbed, was described in January 2016 by Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, but nobody has produced a firm visual yet. READ MORE: Stop Blaming Everything on Planet Nine Fortunately, that may change soon, thanks to the new NASA-funded website Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, launched on Wednesday. Though the project sounds like a mashup between an Ed Wood movie and a scifi-themed porno, it is shaping up to be a thriving space for citizen scientists looking to nab the honor of the first look at this hypothesized sibling planet, which may be a foreign visitor captured by the Sun's gravity—or perhaps an exiled reject, uprooted from the inner solar system to the far edge of the Kuiper Belt. Either way, the search is on. Here's the rundown: Backyard Worlds displays infrared images taken by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, which specializes in spying dim objects like distant planets or failed stars known as "brown dwarfs." Site users can examine flipbook-style image sets, tag moving objects in them for classification, and share the results with the wider community. The hope is that this will lead to crowdsourced observations of the much-anticipated Planet Nine, as well as other dim objects inside and around the solar system. Though it is intended for the public, the project is a collaboration of researchers based at NASA, the American Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, UC Berkeley, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and citizen science portal Zooniverse. It's exciting to think we may be months, weeks, or even days away from pinpointing the whereabouts of the ninth planet-sized world in the solar system—if it really does exist—and that it may not be a seasoned astronomer who seizes this milestone. It could be anyone with an internet connection. Happy hunting! Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.


News Article | February 22, 2017
Site: www.latimes.com

Astronomers scouring the heavens for a planet home to life as we know it have found a tantalizing solar system with not one but seven Earth-sized worlds, just 39 light-years away. Measurements made by powerful space telescopes and ground-based observatories indicate that several of these exoplanets orbit in the habitable zone, where water would naturally exist in liquid form. The TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, described Wednesday in the journal Nature, marks the first time so many terrestrial planets have been found around a single star. Although scientists believe the planets are rocky and Earth-sized, too little is known about their atmospheres and other factors to say whether they are truly Earth-like. But hopes are running high. “With the right atmospheric conditions, there could be water on any of these planets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if but when.” Scientists are already probing the atmospheres of these planets for signs of oxygen, ozone, methane and other gasses that could be signatures of life, added Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The TRAPPIST-1 star is an ultracool dwarf star, much smaller and roughly 200 times fainter than the sun. Indeed, if our sun were the size of a basketball, TRAPPIST-1 would be the size of a golf ball, said study leader Michaël Gillon, a researcher at the University of Liege in Belgium. Even so, ultracool dwarf stars can be pretty hot places to look for potentially life-friendly planets. In this case, that’s partly because all seven worlds orbit so close to the star’s surface, closer than Mercury is to the sun. With that kind of proximity, even the dwarf star’s dim light may provide enough warmth to support living things. On top of that, the planets’ tight orbits make them very easy for certain telescopes to find. The European Southern Observatory’s TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST for short) in Chile uses the transit method to hunt for planets. As a planet passes, or transits, in front of its host star, it blots out a little bit of starlight, causing a dip in overall brightness that scientists can measure. If such a dip happens once, it could be a fluke. If it happens three or more times at regular intervals, it’s probably an orbiting planet. If there are multiple planets, scientists can find them by looking at how they distort each other’s orbits. If a planet seems to transit a tad too early or too late, for example, it means that something else besides the star — such as a fellow planet — is tugging on it. This information also allows astronomers to make a rough calculation of the other planet’s mass. Astronomers announced the discovery of three planets around TRAPPIST-1 last year, but even then they suspected there might be a few more. So they observed the star for 20 days with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The space telescope was an ideal choice because ultra-cool dwarf stars are quite bright in the infrared portion of the light spectrum, which Spitzer measures. However, the telescope was not designed to study exoplanets, said Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. “We had to do a fair amount of engineering work” to get the precision required for the job, he said. Ultimately, Spitzer captured 34 transits of seven different planets, whose “years” ranged from 1.5 to roughly 20 days. (Because the outermost planet passed by the star only once, the scientists could not determine its exact orbit.) All seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are probably rocky, with masses in a range of 20% less to 20% more than that of Earth, give or take, the scientists found. Among the seven planets, three orbit in a zone where any water on the surface would be stable in liquid form. These worlds are neither too hot for it to boil off, nor too cold for it to freeze. One of those planets, known as TRAPPIST-1e, receives about the same amount of light from its star as Earth does from the sun, Lewis said. Another, TRAPPIST-1f, gets about the same amount of light as Mars. Gillon said the planets probably formed farther away from the star and then migrated to their present positions. If that is indeed the case, that would increase their odds of having water, since they would have coalesced in a region with lots of ice. The dwarf star and its exoplanets have a lot in common with Jupiter and its many moons, Gillon and his colleagues said. Like the Jovian satellites, TRAPPIST-1’s planets are in such tight orbits that they are probably tidally locked. If so, that means they show the same face to the star at all times, rather like the moon does to the Earth. The seven planets also seem to be orbiting in resonance with each other. These gravitational interactions could mean that the planets are being heated by tidal forces. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what kind of world you are. For Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, a little tidal heating goes a long way, powering polar geysers more powerful than all the hot springs in Yellowstone. For Jupiter’s moon Io, tidal forces caused it to become covered in inhospitable-looking volcanoes. Of course, much more work remains to determine if any of these planets have the right conditions and chemical ingredients for life. The prospect of sending a spacecraft to the TRAPPIST-1 system is still a faraway dream. Though close by galactic standards, it would take 44 million years to get there on a jet plane. Faster modes of transportation are being worked on, but those ideas are still in very early stages of development, Zurbuchen said. Fortunately, astronomers expect to learn much more about these seven planets as powerful telescopes come online in the coming months. TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is set to launch in December 2017. It will be followed in 2018 by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will analyze these planets’ atmospheres. “Could any of the planets harbor life? We simply do not know,” astronomer Ignas Snellen of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands wrote in a commentary that accompanied the paper. “But one thing is certain: in a few billion years, when the Sun has run out of fuel and the solar system has ceased to exist, TRAPPIST-1 will still be only an infant star. It burns hydrogen so slowly that it will live for another 10 trillion years ... which is arguably enough time for life to evolve.” Follow @aminawrite and @LATkarenkaplan on Twitter for more science news and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook. Same-sex marriage laws helped reduce suicide attempts by gay, lesbian and bisexual teens, study says Can a mouse meditate? Why these researchers want to find out NASA's Juno spacecraft to remain in extra-long orbit for the rest of its time at Jupiter 1:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments and analysis from several scientists. This article was originally published at 10 a.m.


News Article | February 15, 2017
Site: phys.org

"There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "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." WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth's orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed "Planet Nine." If Planet Nine—also known as Planet X—exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data. The search also may discover more distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space. "Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter," said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds." Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's instruments. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It's a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week. On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of "flipbooks," which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. "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," said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. Explore further: NEOWISE mission spies one comet, maybe two


News Article | February 15, 2017
Site: spaceref.com

Like cosmic lighthouses sweeping the universe with bursts of energy, pulsars have fascinated and baffled astronomers since they were first discovered 50 years ago. In two studies, international teams of astronomers suggest that recent images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of two pulsars -- Geminga and B0355+54 -- may help shine a light on the distinctive emission signatures of pulsars, as well as their often perplexing geometry. Pulsars are a type of neutron star that are born in supernova explosions when massive stars collapse. Discovered initially by lighthouse-like beams of radio emission, more recent research has found that energetic pulsars also produce beams of high energy gamma rays. Interestingly, the beams rarely match up, said Bettina Posselt, senior research associate in astronomy and astrophysics, Penn State. The shapes of observed radio and gamma-ray pulses are often quite different and some of the objects show only one type of pulse or the other. These differences have generated debate about the pulsar model. "It's not fully understood why there are variations between different pulsars," said Posselt. "One of the main ideas here is that pulse differences have a lot to do with geometry -- and it also depends on how the pulsar's spin and magnetic axes are oriented with respect to line of sight whether you see certain pulsars or not, as well as how you see them." Chandra's images are giving the astronomers a closer than ever look at the distinctive geometry of the charged particle winds radiating in X-ray and other wavelengths from the objects, according to Posselt. Pulsars rhythmically rotate as they rocket through space at speeds reaching hundreds of kilometers a second. Pulsar wind nebulae (PWN) are produced when the energetic particles streaming from pulsars shoot along the stars' magnetic fields, form tori -- donut-shaped rings -- around the pulsar's equatorial plane, and jet along the spin axis, often sweeping back into long tails as the pulsars' quickly cut through the interstellar medium. "This is one of the nicest results of our larger study of pulsar wind nebulae," said Roger W. Romani, professor of physics at Stanford University and principal investigator of the Chandra PWN project. "By making the 3-D structure of these winds visible, we have shown how one can trace back to the plasma injected by the pulsar at the center. Chandra's fantastic X-ray acuity was essential for this study, so we are happy that it was possible to get the deep exposures that made these faint structures visible." A spectacular PWN is seen around the Geminga pulsar. Geminga -- one of the closest pulsars at only 800 light-years away from Earth -- has three unusual tails, said Posselt. The streams of particles spewing out of the alleged poles of Geminga -- or lateral tails -- stretch out for more than half a light-year, longer than 1,000 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto. Another shorter tail also emanates from the pulsar. The astronomers said that a much different PWN picture is seen in the X-ray image of another pulsar called B0355+54, which is about 3,300 light-years away from Earth. The tail of this pulsar has a cap of emission, followed by a narrow double tail that extends almost five light-years away from the star. While Geminga shows pulses in the gamma ray spectrum, but is radio quiet, B0355+54 is one of the brightest radio pulsars, but fails to show gamma rays. "The tails seem to tell us why that is," said Posselt, adding that the pulsars' spin axis and magnetic axis orientations influence what emissions are seen on Earth. According to Posselt, Geminga may have magnetic poles quite close to the top and bottom of the object, and nearly aligned spin poles, much like Earth. One of the magnetic poles of B0355+54 could directly face the Earth. Because the radio emission occurs near the site of the magnetic poles, the radio waves may point along the direction of the jets, she said. Gamma-ray emission, on the other hand, is produced at higher altitudes in a larger region, allowing the respective pulses to sweep larger areas of the sky. "For Geminga, we view the bright gamma ray pulses and the edge of the pulsar wind nebula torus, but the radio beams near the jets point off to the sides and remain unseen," Posselt said. The strongly bent lateral tails offer the astronomers clues to the geometry of the pulsar, which could be compared to either jet contrails soaring into space, or to a bow shock similar to the shockwave created by a bullet as it is shot through the air. Oleg Kargaltsev, assistant professor of physics, George Washington University, who worked on the study on B0355+54, said that the orientation of B0355+54 plays a role in how astronomers see the pulsar, as well. The study is available online in arXiv. "For B0355+54, a jet points nearly at us so we detect the bright radio pulses while most of the gamma-ray emission is directed in the plane of the sky and misses the Earth," said Kargaltsev. "This implies that the pulsar's spin axis direction is close to our line-of-sight direction and that the pulsar is moving nearly perpendicularly to its spin axis." Noel Klingler, a graduate research assistant in physics, George Washington University, and lead author of the B0355+54 paper, added that the angles between the three vectors -- the spin axis, the line-of-sight, and the velocity -- are different for different pulsars, thus affecting the appearances of their nebulae. "In particular, it may be tricky to detect a PWN from a pulsar moving close to the line-of-sight and having a small angle between the spin axis and our line-of-sight," said Klingler. In the bow-shock interpretation of the Geminga X-ray data, Geminga's two long tails and their unusual spectrum may suggest that the particles are accelerated to nearly the speed of light through a process called Fermi acceleration. The Fermi acceleration takes place at the intersection of a pulsar wind and the interstellar material, according to the researchers, who report their findings on Geminga online and in the current issue of Astrophysical Journal. Although different interpretations remain on the table for Geminga's geometry, Posselt said that Chandra's images of the pulsar are helping astrophysicists use pulsars as particle physics laboratories. Studying the objects gives astrophysicists a chance to investigate particle physics in conditions that would be impossible to replicate in a particle accelerator on earth. "In both scenarios, Geminga provides exciting new constraints on the acceleration physics in pulsar wind nebulae and their interaction with the surrounding interstellar matter," she said. * "Deep Chandra Observations of the Pulsar Wind Nebula Created by PSR B0355+54," Noel Klingler et al., 2016 Dec. 20, Astrophysical Journal [http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/833/2/253, preprint: https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.06167]. * "Geminga's Puzzling Pulsar Wind Nebula," B. Posselt et al., 2017, to appear in Astrophysical Journal [http://apj.aas.org, preprint: https://arxiv.org/abs/1611.03496]. Other team members include George C. Pavlov, senior scientist in astronomy and astrophysics, Penn State; Pat O. Slane, lecturer and senior astrophysicist, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Roger Romani, professor of physics, Stanford University; Niccolo Bucciantini, permanent researcher, INAF Osservatorio Astorfisico di Arcetri; Andrei M. Bykov, head of the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics, Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute; Martin C. Weisskopf, project scientist, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center; Stephen Chi-Yung Ng, assistant professor of physics, University of Hong Kong. Additional team members for the study on B0355+54 include Blagoy Rangelov, postdoctoral researcher, George Washington University; Tea Temim, JWST Support Scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute; Douglas A. Swartz, research scientist, Marshall Space Flight Center and Rolf Buehler, staff scientist, DESY Zeuthen. NASA and the Russian Science Foundation supported this work. Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.


News Article | February 22, 2017
Site: www.rdmag.com

Could we be on the verge of discovering life outside of Earth? On Feb. 22, NASA officials announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets that orbit around the ultra-cool dwarf TRAPPIST-1 star, with at least three of the planets showing signs that they may be able to contain liquid water. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C., said during a press conference that the finding could lead to the discovery of a planet that mimics the conditions on Earth. “Three of these planets are in the habitable zone, where liquid water could pool on the surface,” Zurbuchen said. “In fact, with the right atmospheric conditions water can form on any of these planets. The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when.” The research team used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to reveal the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets that orbit around a single star. The system is located about 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. The planets are termed ‘exoplanets’ because they are located outside of Earth’s solar system. According to Zurbuchen, the discovery could help answer the age-old question of whether life exists outside of Earth. “This is a major step forward towards answering one of the very questions that is at the heart of so many of our philosophers and what we’re thinking about when we are by ourselves and that basically is ‘are we alone out there’,” he said. “This is a leap forward towards answering that question.” Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said the planet that most resembles Earth is TRAPPIST-1 E. “It is very close in size to Earth and it also receives about the same amount of light that Earth does in our own solar system,” Lewis said. “This means you can have temperatures that are very similar to the ones we have here on Earth.” Lewis said TRAPPIST-1 F is the most water rich planet and TRAPPIST-1 G is the largest of the planets in the habitable zone. All seven exoplanets are closer to their host star than Mercury is to the Sun.


News Article | February 21, 2017
Site: news.yahoo.com

Has NASA found evidence of life in space? Some of the world's leading voices on life beyond Earth will gather for a NASA press conference Wednesday where an important announcement on planets outside our solar system was expected to be made, NASA announced Monday. Exoplanets are widely believed to be the best hope of finding life elsewhere in the universe. NASA vowed to broadcast the announcement featuring astronomers and planetary scientists from across the world on NASA Television and the agency's website. The space agency was encouraging the public to ask questions during the briefing on Twitter using the hashtag #askNASA. The announcement comes as NASA has also been working to send a lander to Europa, Jupiter’s ice moon, to explore the potential for extraterrestrial life. The project includes determining whether life can thrive on Europa. The full press release about Wednesday's major announcement titled "NASA to Host News Conference on Discovery Beyond Our Solar System" can be found below: "NASA will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, Feb. 22, to present new findings on planets that orbit stars other than our sun, known as exoplanets. The event will air live on NASA Television and the agency's website. Details of these findings are embargoed by the journal Nature until 1 p.m. Limited seating is available in the NASA TV studio for media who would like to attend in person at the agency’s Headquarters at 300 E Street SW in Washington. Media unable to attend in person may ask questions by telephone. To attend in person or participate by phone, media must send an email with their name, affiliation and telephone number to Dwayne Brown at dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov by noon Feb. 22. Media and the public also may ask questions during the briefing on Twitter using the hashtag #askNASA. ·        Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington ·        Michael Gillon, astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium ·        Nikole Lewis, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore ·        Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge A Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) about exoplanets will be held following the briefing at 3 p.m. with scientists available to answer questions in English and Spanish."

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