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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: www.cnet.com

There's nothing like a little after-lunch planet-hunting, and if you have some time to spare, NASA could use your help. The agency has launched a Zooniverse website called Backyard Worlds: Planet Nine, where anyone can join in the search for undiscovered planets. It's not as glamorous as piloting a spaceship into the Final Frontier, but it's valuable work. Visitors can pore over images and videos made by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, looking for unknown objects. The big one NASA hopes to find is Planet Nine, an enormous mysterious object out beyond Neptune thought to be having a gravitational effect on distant solar system objects. But brown dwarfs, objects somewhere between the heaviest planets and the lightest stars, may also appear in some of the images as objects that move around. NASA hopes citizen researchers will find those too. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds," said Jackie Faherty, member of the Backyard Worlds team. There's a tutorial on the Backyard Worlds website, so head on over and click the Classify button at the top of the page to get started.


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 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: www.eurekalert.org

Arizona State University astronomer Adam Schneider and his colleagues are hunting for an elusive object lost in space between our Sun and the nearest stars. They are asking for your help in the search, using a new citizen-science website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Astronomers have found evidence for a ninth planet in our solar system. The evidence comes from studying the orbits of objects in the solar system's Kuiper Belt. This is a zone of comet-like bodies orbiting the Sun out beyond the orbit of Neptune. The Kuiper Belt is similar to the asteroid belt that circles the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, but it lies dozens of times farther out. This hypothetical Planet 9 could be similar in size to Neptune, but it may orbit up to a thousand times farther away from the Sun than the Earth does. So while astronomers can see its effects on the Kuiper Belt objects, no one has yet observed Planet 9 directly. "If it exists, Planet 9 could be large -- maybe 10 times the mass of Earth but orbiting far out beyond the Kuiper Belt," says Schneider. "Yet it must be extremely dim and hard to find." A postdoctoral researcher in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, Schneider is particularly interested in studying objects smaller than fully fledged stars and ranging down in size to planets. In addition to searching for a distant planet orbiting the Sun, this new project will help astronomers identify the Sun's nearest neighbors outside of our solar system. "There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," says the lead researcher for Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Astronomers expect the Sun's neighborhood will contain many low-mass objects called brown dwarfs. These emit very little light at visible wavelengths, but instead glow dimly with infrared -- heat -- radiation. "Brown dwarfs are somewhat mysterious," says Schneider. "They have masses of less than 80 times that of Jupiter, because that's the point at which nuclear fusion begins and an object becomes by definition a star." But there's no real lower limit to how small a brown dwarf could be, he says. "If we find one that's, say, five times the mass of Jupiter and it's orbiting a star, we'd call it a planet," Schneider explains. "But an identical object could also be floating freely in space, unattached to any star, and we'd call it a brown dwarf." So how do astronomers find such objects in space? That's where you can contribute using a website that enlists the help of citizen scientists. It's called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 and it uses images taken by NASA's WISE space telescope. WISE, which stands for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was launched in late 2009 and it has mapped the entire sky several times during the last seven years. WISE detects infrared light, the kind of light emitted by objects at room temperature, like planets and brown dwarfs. This sensitivity to infrared light makes WISE uniquely suited for discovering Planet 9, if it exists. But there's a snag: Images from WISE have captured nearly 750 million individual sources in the sky. Doubtlessly among these lurk the elusive brown dwarfs and possibly Planet 9. The question is how to sift through the data and identify them. The trick to finding these needles in haystacks of WISE data is to look for something in motion. Planetary objects and brown dwarfs roaming near the Sun can appear to move across the sky, leaving other celestial objects such as background stars and galaxies, which lie immensely far away, apparently fixed in place. So the best hope for discovering these worlds is to systematically scan infrared images of the sky, searching for objects that move. Automated searches for moving objects in the WISE data have already proven successful, but computerized searches are often overwhelmed by image artifacts -- visual noise -- especially in crowded parts of the sky. As Schneider explains, "People who join in the Backyard Worlds search bring a unique skill to the search: the human ability to recognize movement." The search method is a 21st-century version of the same technique used at Arizona's Lowell Observatory by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. He discovered dwarf planet Pluto 87 years ago this week, on February 18, 1930. Back then, Tombaugh compared two photographs taken a couple weeks apart, looking for a tiny dot of light that shifted position. The Backyard Worlds search works similarly, but by electronically serving up flipbooks of WISE images taken at different times. As each flipbook plays, objects in the field move or change appearance, making it easy for volunteer observers to flag suspicious objects for later follow-up. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that results from the project. The discovery of a ninth planet in our solar system or a new nearest neighbor to the Sun would mark a major event in the history of astronomy. Such objects could already be present within the vast WISE dataset, just waiting to be found. "This program offers an excellent opportunity for citizen scientists to help astronomers with an edge-of-discovery search," says Schneider. Besides Arizona State University, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, University of California Berkeley, American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and the Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet.


News Article | November 1, 2016
Site: www.scientificamerican.com

Alex Rogan masters a video game called “Starfighter” where he defends "the Frontier" from "Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada" in a space battle. Soon after he becomes the world’s highest scoring player, the teenager meets an alien who informs him that the battle is real! The video game was a test and a recruiting tool, meant to find those with “the gift” to pilot a real Starfighter spacecraft. Now it will be up to Alex to save the Galaxy. That’s the plot of the 1984 space opera The Last Starfighter. And I think it’s a useful model for citizen science projects, where untrained laypeople are invited to take part in performing professional scientific research. Since January 2014, I’ve had the honor of leading a citizen science project called Disk Detective, which is funded by NASA and part of the Zooniverse citizen science community. The project aims to find new planetary systems using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and other surveys; we recognize these systems by the infrared light radiated from circumstellar disks. At DiskDetective.org, users view ten-second videos of each astronomical source, and help us rule out false positives by clicking buttons to describe what they see. Our top users are not teenagers in trailer parks like Alex from The Last Starfighter. But they certainly do have “the gift,” i.e., a passion for science. While roughly 30,000 people have participated in the project at some level, so far, more than half of the online classification work at DiskDetective.org has been performed by a group of roughly 30 dedicated citizen scientists, working round the clock, chasing the next big discovery. Even more impressive to me than the roughly 1,000,000 classifications performed by this group at the Disk Detective website are the thousands of additional hours this team has spent working on the project offline, so to speak. This “advanced user group” organized themselves, starting their own Google group and Facebook group to communicate with one another. They have helped the project by: These contributions have taken us far beyond the original scope of the project. Moreover, our advanced users have also helped teach one another about the science of disks and stellar spectroscopy, creating elaborate online guides for one another to read, and coaching one another one-on-one. That task hasn’t always been easy given that English is a second language for many of our users. Sometimes my colleagues will ask me: could Disk Detective possibly have been done by computer? Could a clever machine-learning algorithm replace the hard work of the citizen scientists? Indeed, a series of innovative computer analyses by several teams of professional scientist have uncovered many of the brightest disks in the WISE archive in the six years since the data became available. So the competition between computer-aided professionals and teams of citizen-scientists is keen. But Disk Detective has already made several discoveries that the teams of professionals did not, despite having access tothe data several years before our project launched. We published our first two papers this month. One described what appears to be the first debris disk ever found around a star with a white dwarf companion. The other announced a new disk candidate around a cool star that appears to be a member of the Carina association of young stars: the oldest “M dwarf” disk in an association. Moreover we at Disk Detective have found many mistakes in the published computer analyses; false positives where a human eye was truly needed to make the right call. But I think our best discoveries of all have been our “Last Starfighters,” the passionate citizen scientists in the Disk Detective advanced user group: a retired doctor, a retired biologist, a computer scientist, students of law and geodesy, a postal worker, grandparents, teachers, a single mom—each with unique talents and perspectives. Even after Disk Detective has found its last disk, they will probably continue to serve humanity through their science. Some even have applied for jobs in astronomy inspired by their work on Disk Detective. So the next time I launch a citizen science project (and that will be soon) I will certainly ask myself: could the basic online classification task be done better by computer? But I will also remember that a citizen science project run right is a talent search. Right from the start, I will build in new ways to inspire and connect with the project’s most active users. And I will do my best to stay in touch with the international community of citizen science superstars that is emerging, and find new ways to work with them throughout my own career. There is a lot of scientific talent out there, just waiting for a chance to save the Galaxy.


News Article | February 18, 2017
Site: news.yahoo.com

NASA needs help finding space objects, so the government agency teamed up with astronomy site Zooniverse for a new project that will recruit the public to help aid in the search for hidden planets and other solar system objects beyond Neptune. The NASA-funded project, named Backyard Worlds: Find Planet 9, launched on Zooniverse Wednesday. Participants in the project will search through data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and separate actual celestial objects like brown dwarfs and low-mass stars from image artifacts that can sometimes appear to be real objects, referred to as false positive. WISE has pumped out hundreds of thousands of images but the computer system was unable to determine actual space object from image errors. “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,” Zooniverse said in a statement. “But with your powerful human eyes, you can help us recognize real objects of interest that move among these artifacts.” Citizen scientists participating in the project will investigate images beyond Neptune’s orbit for objects in a solar belt called the Kuiper Belt, which contains a few dwarf planets as well as Pluto. Researchers were also hoping someone will help them find another planet that could be in the sun’s orbit between Promixma Centauri, the closest star to the sun, and Neptune. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Promixma Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” Marc Kuchner, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astrophysicist said in a statement. “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 was first launched in 2010 and scanned the sky until 2011. The system was reactivated in 2013 and has aided NASA’s efforts to find potentially hazardous near-Earth objects like asteroids and comets. The public project comes just days after NASA completed its crowdsource space poop challenge, which asked citizens to design an innovative waste management system that could be used by astronauts in space on missions lasting up to 144 hours or six days.

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