Citizen scientists could unlock ‘once-in-a-century discoveries,’ according to researchers.
It seems something is lurking out there but stargazers don’t know what it is.
Measurements taken from the movements of distant objects in our solar system suggest there is a ninth planet way out beyond Neptune in the huge wasteland of icy debris called the Kuiper belt.
Now you can join in and help find the elusive object.
Astronomers from NASA and the University of California, Berkeley, want you to trawl through thousands of images taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer to see if you can spot Planet Nine.
“Automated searches don’t work well in some regions of the sky, like the plane of the Milky Way,” said Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley. “There are too many stars there, which confuses the search algorithm.”
That’s where you come in.
Dr Meisner has teamed up with NASA astronomer Marc Kuchner to try to pin down Planet Nine in a project called Backyard Worlds.
“This has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries. It’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” Dr Meisner said.
The science on whether there is a ninth planet certainly isn’t settled.
“It’s still pretty controversial,” Dr Meisner told Fairfax Media. “The measurements pointing to a ninth planet are taken from just seven distant objects in the outer Kuiper belt.”
Data from those “Trans-Neptunian Objects” were the first indirect evidence that such a planet might exist. Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin last year said that from this data Planet Nine would likely be two to four times the Earth’s diameter, and 10 times its mass, orbiting the sun every 15,000 Earth years.
Even if Planet Nine doesn’t exist, there are plenty of other objects citizen scientists can spot using Backyard Worlds.
Dr Meisner said: “It’s more likely volunteers will find brown dwarfs in the solar neighbourhood. While Planet Nine would look very blue in WISE time-lapse animations, brown dwarfs would look very red and move across the sky more slowly.”
Brown dwarfs form like stars, but then evolve like planets. They never become dense enough to ignite the fusion reactions required to make stars burn.
WISE images have already allowed astronomers to identify hundreds of previously unknown brown dwarfs, including the sun’s third and fourth closest known objects.
Professor Chris Tinney at the University of NSW is a brown dwarf hunter. He said that the Backyard Worlds project was definitely something worth doing.
“I don’t think they will find Planet Nine – as I don’t think it’s there. But there are possibly other classes of objects to be found in the WISE data,” Professor Tinney said.
“If they find anything new it will be very exciting,” he said.
The techniques used to identify these types of objects is similar to that used by Clyde Tombaugh to identify Pluto in 1930. Back then, glass photographic plates were compared to find a moving dot against a background of stars.
The principle to find Planet Nine is the same, but the technology is very different. NASA’s WISE telescope scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011 building the most comprehensive survey of mid-infrared wavelengths available.
By comparing frames of the same part of the sky, astronomers – and you – can look for moving objects, which might turn out to be the distant planet.
Dr Meisner said he has loaded 32,000 animations of four images each. By looking for moving objects in the animations, citizen scientists could find Planet Nine.
“About three per cent of the WISE data has been uploaded to the Backyard World’s website,” he said. “We have the rest processed, but we’d like to use the initial 32,000 as a testbed to further optimise our methodology.”