New Five-Planet Solar System Found by Citizen Scientists Using Kepler Data
We tend to think that scientific breakthroughs can only come from visionaries and crack teams of highly skilled, specialized researchers. And though that's often still the case, the Internet-savvy age we live in leaves ample opportunities for collaboration, along with endless outlets for the exchange of ideas, data and research.
The Exoplanet Explorers citizen scientist project, the brainchild UC Santa Cruz astronomer Ian Crossfield and Caltech staff scientist Jessie Christiansen, began its search for new planets on crowdsourcing research platform Zooniverse. But it was a feature on the ABC Australia television series Stargazing Live that ultimately yielded the most new data from citizens. Within two days of introducing the project on television, Exoplanet Explorers received over 2 million classifications from over 10,000 citizen scientists.
As citizens contributing to the Exoplanet Explorers shared, K2 had a whole new field of stars that might host planets, contained in a dataset called C12 that no astronomer had yet thought to look through.
Sorting through the upvoted, crowdsourced data, Christiansen eventually found a star with four planets orbiting it. Christainsen and the Expoplanet Explorers had stumbled upon the first system of exo-planets that was discovered entirely by crowdsourcing. They named the system K2-138.
These planets are orbiting in a resonance, a mathematical term for when each planet takes almost exactly 50 percent longer to orbit the star than the next planet further in. A fifth planet was also discovered on the same chain, with hints of a sixth as well.
"Some current theories suggest that planets form by a chaotic scattering of rock and gas and other material in the early stages of the planetary system's life," Christiansen said. "However, these theories are unlikely to result in such a closely packed, orderly system as K2-138," says Christiansen. "What's exciting is that we found this unusual system with the help of the general public."
The Kepler telescope continues to be instrumental in the discovery of new worlds. Last year, NASA announced that the telescope had discovered 1,284 new exoplanets by measuring the process of transit, when a planet passes in front of a star as viewed from Earth. Of those 1,284 new exoplanets, nine might support life.
Kepler's past discoveries included 100 new expoplanets in 2016, and a whopping 715 in 2014. As of last year, all these discoveries added up to 3,200 verified exoplanets on our star maps, 21 of which potentially support life. We can now add the Kepler's newest discoveries to the list.