How can NASA help find aliens?

Even in a time of a pandemic, it is possible to help NASA in its research to find out if there is life on other planets, just using your computer. You can now search for planets outside the solar system from the comfort of your own home as much of the world is under quarantine due to the global health emergency.

This thanks to the project Planet patrol from NASA, which is looking for Internet users to help it find new objects in space. These objects could eventually reveal signs of life in new places.

Citizen Scientists

As the agency explains, this citizen science platform allows people to collaborate with professional astronomers by sorting a batch of images collected by Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

“TESS automated data processing methods sometimes fail to spot imposters that look like exoplanets,” said Veselin Kostov, project leader and research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The human eye is extremely agile when it comes to spotting such impostors. So we need citizen scientists to help us distinguish look-alikes from real planets. ”

In this way, volunteers will help determine which TESS images include signals from potential planets and which show imitations of planets. Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite collects thousands of snapshots, which in turn contain thousands of possible planets – too many for scientists to examine in detail without assistance.

However, the work of volunteers is far from easy. It is difficult to distinguish false planets from real ones when the signals from these celestial bodies are very weak. Sometimes there are light curves or other factors that make classification difficult.

Projects that work

This type of program has already given excellent results. For example, a Goddard summer intern recently helped uncover a planet orbiting two stars through another citizen science program called Planet Hunters.

“The program has given us extremely positive results and has generated a lot of interest within
the community.” – Veselin Kostov, researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“TESS Planet Hunters asks its volunteers to observe light curves, which are graphs of how bright stars are over time. Planet Patrol asks them to look at the TESS image directly, although we also plan to include light curves for these images in the future, ”said Marc Kuchner, citizen science officer for NASA’s Science Missions Directorate.

Interview with …

Veselin Kostov, project manager for Planet Patrol Project and research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

What is the Planet Patrol Project?

Planet Patrol is a new citizen science project aimed at taking an in-depth look at potential moving exoplanets from TESS. The objective of the program is to perform visual inspection and classification of images corresponding to each movement of each potential planet of TESS. It all works by answering a series of questions designed to sort between the good images with the right measurements and the bad images caused by instrumental and / or astrophysical artefacts.

Why do you need help identifying exoplanets?

Help is sought from Citizen Scientists because so-called artefacts can often mislead and / or confuse the software we use to do automated data analysis. The human eye is really nimble at quickly and reliably distinguishing good images from bad images, while computers can struggle when the data is unclear.

What about the results so far?

Most recently, the program completed the classification of images and the data is being analyzed now. The program has given us extremely positive results and generated a lot of interest in the community.

What can we expect for the future?

The next project is to visually inspect the light curves of potential moving exoplanets from the TESS with the aim of further eliminating false identifications due to secondary eclipses and / or stellar variability.

Four more citizen science projects from NASA

In addition to Planet Patrol, NASA has other programs that you can participate in.

  • Sungrazer Project, giving anyone in the world the chance to become a discoverer of comets.
  • Stardust @ home which allows the search for interstellar particles in the airgel from the Stardust spacecraft.
  • Fireballs in the Sky to contribute fireball sightings using a user-friendly mobile app.
  • Disk Detective in order to locate the disks around nearby stars, where planets form and live.
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