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Try It At Home: Help Discover New Planets!

  • By Sara Mitchell
  • December 7, 2015
  • Comments Off on Try It At Home: Help Discover New Planets!

When I heard the news that astronomers have made unprecedented observations of a still-forming planet around a star named LkCa 15, I was really excited. Just 25 years ago, we hadn’t found any exoplanets and weren’t sure if, when, or how we’d find something so small, faint, and distant. In 1992, Polish astronomer Aleksander Wolszczan observed the first exoplanets (large planets orbiting a pulsar), and suddenly this new field took off. As our understanding of exoplanets has improved, and our technology has become more sophisticated, astronomers have observed a growing number and variety of exoplanet systems.

I like to keep an eye on PlanetQuest for a current tally of discoveries and an atlas of their characteristics. Today, there are nearly 2,000 confirmed exoplanets in their database, and upcoming missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will provide astronomers with new instruments and opportunities to keep making amazing discoveries.

Credit: The University of Arizona

All of the planets that astronomers have observed so far have been fully-formed, so the baby planet orbiting LkCa 15 gives us a glimpse of what happens as new planets are born and grow up. I wanted to get a bit more insight into the excitement around LkCa 15 from an exoplanet researcher, so I turned to Dr. Marc Kuchner, a scientist in NASA Goddard’s Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory who focuses on finding and observing exoplanet systems. Marc is also passionate about getting everyone involved in the hunt for exoplanets – he works on the Disk Detective citizen science project, which invites volunteers to look through astronomical data and find new planetary systems.

NASA Blueshift: What are exoplanets? How and why do you study them?

Marc Kuchner: An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than the Sun. We study exoplanets to better understand where our solar system came from, and how life arose – here on Earth and maybe elsewhere in the Galaxy.

Blueshift: How do scientists find and study exoplanets?

Marc: We find some exoplanets indirectly by observing how they affect the light from the stars they orbit. Others we observe directly, by taking pictures of lots of stars with telescopes using special tools to spot faint objects (planets) next to the bright stars.

Blueshift: How can citizen scientists get involved in the hunt for exoplanets?

Marc: At Disk Detective, anyone with a computer or smartphone can join the hunt for exoplanets by helping NASA search for the disks where planets form.  These disks are natural places to search for exoplanets – about half of the planets we have imaged so far dwell in disks. Disk Detectives find these disks by viewing 10 second videos of data from NASA’s WISE mission and other surveys.

Planet-forming disk - artist's conception

This artist’s conception shows how planets could form in a system similar to LkCa 15. Planets form in the dusty disk around a star, sweeping up material and growing larger as they orbit.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Blueshift: What’s exciting about LkCa 15?

Marc: LkCa 15 shows us a young planetary system in the process of forming – it’s a way to look back in time and learn about what might have been going on in our solar system when it was very young.

Blueshift: What do you hope to find next in exoplanet research (and can citizen scientists help with that, too)?

Marc: At Disk Detective, we’re looking for more objects like LkCa 15 that show us how disks and planets interact.  We’re also looking for disks around unusual kinds of stars that other surveys can’t search. We hope to find new planetary systems around stars that are much lower mass than the Sun stars that are much older than the Sun, for example.  Come join the fun!

For more info about Dr. Marc Kuchner, check out his profile on Imagine the Universe.

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