The world is going back to the future, the Renaissance, when amateur scientists made scientific breakthroughs. Professional and volunteer astronomers have identified the first-known planet with four suns. According to an announcement from Oxford University astrophysicist Dr. Chris Lintott, Citizen Science Project Lead, “it’s a fabulous and unusual world.”
Planet Hunters is a joint project led by Yale University that shares astronomical data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft with volunteers who look for anomalies that suggest planets.
“I celebrate this discovery as a milestone for the Planet Hunters team: discovering their first exoplanet lurking in the Kepler data. I celebrate this discovery for the wow-factor of a planet in a four-star system,” stated Dr. Natalie Batalha, Kepler scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., in a NASA news release.
“Most importantly, I celebrate this discovery as the fruit of exemplary human cooperation—cooperation between scientists and citizens who give of themselves for the love of stars, knowledge, and exploration,” said Dr. Batalha
The rare planet is called PH1, for Planet Hunters 1, and is thought to be a gas giant, about the size of Neptune, with a 137-day orbit. It is a circumbinary planet, meaning it orbits a double star, which is extraordinary enough, but according to NASA, “Beyond the planet’s orbit approximately 900 times the distance between the sun and Earth, a second pair of stars orbits the planetary system.”
If a person could stand on the planet, he could see all four stars clearly, according to the announcement from Planet Hunters. “This is much closer than the nearest stars are to the Sun, so anyone viewing the sky from PH1 would have a spectacular view of all four stars,” wrote Lintott in the announcement.
“Most importantly, I celebrate this discovery as the fruit of exemplary human cooperation.”
—Natalie Batalha, Kepler scientist, NASA Ames Research Center
He added, “More importantly, this amazing system will help us understand how and where planets can form—producing a stable planet in a system where four different stars are moving about can’t be easy.”
Robert Gagliano and Kian Jek first identified the planet. A paper about the discovery was submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and presented Oct. 15 at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nev. Several individuals were credited in the paper, and Planet Hunters called the discovery a true team effort.
Enrolling interested amateurs by sharing data with everyone is a new idea. Wired magazine named it crowdsourcing, and the Planet Hunters project is a fruitful example of crowdsourcing. The process depends upon the Internet.
Kepler is looking for planets in habitable zones, called Goldilocks zones, where liquid water can exist. According to the NASA website, “NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is discovering a veritable avalanche of alien worlds. … As the numbers mount, it seems to be just a matter of time before Kepler finds what astronomers are really looking for: an Earth-like planet orbiting its star in the ‘Goldilocks zone.’”
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