NASA Needs Your Help For A Once-In-A-Lifetime Discovery

Pablo Tucker
February 17, 2017

A faint spot seen moving through background stars might be a new and distant planet orbiting the sun or a nearby brown dwarf. It's called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, and it uses images taken by NASA's WISE space telescope.

"It's nearly like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they're all in exactly the same place", Brown said in a statement in January 2016.

A postdoctoral researcher in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, Schneider is particularly interested in studying objects smaller than fully fledged stars and ranging down in size to planets.

Automated searches for moving objects in the WISE data have already proven successful, but computerized searches are often overwhelmed by image artifacts - visual noise - especially in crowded parts of the sky. Meisner thinks that online volunteers would perhaps be lucky in detecting new planets due to their fast brains. These emit very little light at visible wavelengths, but instead glow dimly with infrared - heat - radiation. Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

According to Brown and Batygin's calculations, Planet Nine would be as big as Neptune and 10 times bigger than Earth, but its distance would be up to a thousand times farther from the sun.


Video courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

This diagram shows the orbits of several Kuiper Belt objects that were used to infer the existence of Planet 9.

The organizers of "Backyard Worlds" are counting on that human factor. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's instruments.

If you see anything that stands out, flag the object.

In any resulting discoveries, participants will have shared credit.


The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths now available.

Today, computers conduct similar analyses of images much more quickly to identify dwarf planets, asteroids and the failed stars known as brown dwarfs. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). Citizen scientists who join the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project may be the first to spot it. NASA image. "But there are possibly other classes of objects to be found in the WISE data", astronomer Chris Tinney from the University of New South Wales, who isn't involved in the project, told Marcus Strom from the Sydney Morning Herald. However, scientists still believe that somewhere in the far reaches of our space system, a ninth planet, dubbed Planet 9 or also known as Planet X exists.

This means members of the public can participate in the potential discovery of planets and other objects at the edge of our solar system and in neighbouring interstellar space. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these odd rogue worlds".

The project is a collaboration involving NASA, the University of California at Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse.


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