Citizen Scientists Helped Discover a Distant Exoplanet That May Hold Liquid Water

Friday, 11 January 2019 - 9:56AM
Space
Astronomy
Friday, 11 January 2019 - 9:56AM
Citizen Scientists Helped Discover a Distant Exoplanet That May Hold Liquid Water
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Using data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, a group of citizen scientists have made an intriguing discovery: an exoplanet twice the size of Earth that lies within its host's habitable zone, which means that it may have liquid water on its surface. Named K2-288Bb, the planet is roughly 226 light years away in a two-star stellar system and is believed to be either rocky like our planet, or gas-rich like Neptune.

"It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon," said Adina Feinstein, lead author of a paper describing the exoplanet that will be published in The Astronomical Journal. Feinstein, a graduate student at University of Chicago, also discussed the research earlier this week at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. The exoplanet is said to orbit the smaller and dimmer of the two M-type stars in the K2-288 system every 31.3 days, but without the help of citizen scientists, the planet and its orbit may have gone completely unseen.


Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy

Back in 2017, Feinstein and an undergraduate student named Makennah Bristow were working as interns for astrophysicist Joshua Schlieder of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. According to NASA, their job was to search Kepler K2 data for evidence of transits. They found two, but a third is required of scientists who wish to claim a planetary candidate discovery. It was later discovered that because of K2 repositioning, measurements from the early days of the telescope's observations were affected and ultimately ignored by the software created to prep the data for analysis. Corrections were made, all the data was re-run through the fixed software, but not all of the candidates were inspected. It's when the data was posted to the Exoplanet Explorers that volunteers spotted the missing transit. "That's how we missed it - and it took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it," Feinstein said in a statement.

The Kepler mission officially ended after 9 years on October 30, 2018 when the telescope ran out of fuel, but the wealth of data that it collected in that time will keep scientists busy for a while and will likely result in more promising discoveries.
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