The hunt for potentially habitable planets outside of our solar system is one of the most exciting frontiers of science, and you can become a part of it without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home.
This week, MIT and Carnegie Science Institute released a huge dataset containing close to 61,000 measurements of over 1600 stars. These measurements contain data that could potentially identify thousands of new exoplanets, many of which might be Earth-like in their nature. Unfortunately, the MIT and Carnegie Institute team simply doesn’t have the capacity to trawl through all of this information, so they’re looking to the public for help.
“This is an amazing catalog, and we realized there just aren’t enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset,” said Jennifer Burt, a Torres of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “We’re trying to shift toward a more community-oriented idea of how we should do science, so that others can access the data and see something interesting.”
The goal is to make this data as accessible as possible, so if you’re not an expert in Astrophysics, don’t worry, there’s a free online tutorial on how to sift through the data and turn yourself into Earth’s newest planet hunter.
The data was collected using the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) at Hawaii’s Keck observatory. HIRES was initially designed to take detailed measurements of the light emitted by stars and other distant celestial objects, but it soon became clear to the HIRES team that they could use the instrument to measure a star’s radial velocity – the fluctuations of its movements across our line of sight. Some fluctuations in a star’s radial velocity can be attributed simply to internal processes, but sometimes they can be caused by the tug of a planet’s gravity as it orbits its host star.
As a planet hunter, it’s these fluctuations that you’ll be looking for by using an open-sourced software platform that allows you to search data on any of the 1600+ stars that HIRES has measured. Best of all, the system will be fed new data as and when it’s received from the HIRES team.
“This dataset will slowly grow, and you’ll be able to go on and search for whatever star you’re interested in and download all the data we’ve ever taken on it,” said Burt. “The dataset includes the date, the velocity we measured, the error on that velocity, and measurements of the star’s activity during that observation. Nowadays, with access to public analysis software like Systemic, it’s easy to load the data in and start playing with it.”
So, next time you’re hanging out with your pals and they ask what you’ve been up to, you might actually be able to tell them you discovered a new planet orbiting a star dozens of light years away. Pretty sweet.