I ‘m a member of a large group of volunteer astronomers called “Planet Hunters”. It is a dedicated group of ordinary people who donate their time to analyze thousands light spectra data from the Kepler space telescope in search of planets that surround stars beyond our solar system (I have analyzed about 16,600 stars). Not all of the stars I analyzed have been reviewed yet but astronomers have identified numerous planets within habitable zones of their stars.
Kepler-Planet Transits A Star
Analyzing Kepler Space Telescope Data is Real Science
The data from the Kepler telescope are real and this work is real science, because NASA needs someone to review thousands of light spectra to narrow down the analyses required by professional astronomers. The data are provided to the public by NASA on a website called “Zooniverse“. Planet Hunters is just one of many projects that is offered on Zooniverse. (I just happen to be interested in hunting for planets beyond our solar system).
The idea behind Planet Hunters is that we cannot see planets directly because their companion stars are so much brighter than planets, we only see the stars, even with our most powerful telescopes in space. So we have to detect planets using indirect methods.
Kepler Can Detect Minute Changes in Light From Stars Beyond Our Solar System
It is possible to detect disturbances in the light spectra of a given star if a planet passes in front of the star. When this occurs, the light is reduced slightly, producing what is called a “transit”. If a transit has sufficient intensity and is repeated at regular intervals, it could indicate the existence of a planet orbiting around a star. The Kepler space telescope is capable of
Kepler Space Telescope
detecting extremely minute variations in the light spectra from stars that are way beyond our solar system and galaxy. However, it is focused on stars that are close-by within our own Milky Way Galaxy for now, because there are billions of stars in our own galaxy to keep us busy for a while. In addition, it makes sense to search for planets that are close.
Here is an example of light graph data provided to the Planet Hunters project. I have included this particular graph as it is for one of the stars in which several of my colleagues and I have identified a possible planet beyond our solar system.
Planet Hunting Beyond Our Solar System
The star is a white dwarf, approximately 0.6 times the size of our sun and you can see that the cluster of light spectra (dots) are consistent for a time, hovering around a light intensity of about 1.008. Then you’ll notice a very sudden and distinct drop in light intensity to about 1.002. Time is on the horizontal axis, and you can see that this drop occurs over approximately 2 days. Therefore whatever crossed in front of the star passed it in 2 earth days. It is likely a planet that is very large and very close to its star.
This has been identified by numerous Planet Hunters as a very good transit, and further, it has been identified by the Kepler team as a possible planet. After a transit is identified by at least 3 other Planet Hunters, it is flagged to be reanalyzed by professional astronomers. They use other astronomical techniques to further verify if the transit is actually a planet.
If these other scientific methods verify it is a planet, the astronomers will produce a scientific publication and provide credit to the Planet Hunters who first discovered it! Recognition in a scientific paper is one of the greatest honours you can have as a scientist and I would be ecstatic if the planet turned out to contain intelligent life beyond our solar system.
Clearly the goal of Planet Hunters is to search for a planet that is similar to Earth in size, with a similar distance to its star in what is known as the “Goldilocks Zone”. Any planet that would support life as we know it needs to be in an orbit area that is “just right” for life. Any closer and it’s too hot, any farther, and it’s too cold.
So we continue to search beyond our solar system for planets similar to our own in a “Goldilocks Zone”that would support life. So when “transits” are discovered, the professional astronomers take over to verify it’s a real planet, but it is nice to know that the Planet Hunters who identify the transits will get recognition.
After all I can’t think of a greater contribution that can be made by an ordinary person to mankind than discovering the 1st planet that contains intelligent life, proving that we are not alone in the universe!
Maddalena Environmental Inc.
P.S. Anyone can become a Planet Hunter by registering on Zooniverse.