Pattern recognition is still best left to humans it seems.
You don’t need to be a professional astronomer to find new worlds orbiting distant stars, as Phys.org reports.
Darwin mechanic and amateur astronomer Andrew Grey this week helped to discover a new exoplanet system with at least four orbiting planets. But Andrew did have professional help and support.
The discovery was a highlight moment of this week’s three-evening special ABC Stargazing Live, featuring British physicist Brian Cox, presenter Julia Zemiro and others.
Viewers were encouraged to join in the search for exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – using the Exoplanet Explorers website. After a quick tutorial they were then asked to trawl through data on thousands of stars recently observed with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.
Grey checked out more than 1,000 stars on the website before discovering the characteristic dips in brightness of the star in the data that signify an exoplanet. Together with other co-discoverers, Grey’s name will appear on a scientific paper reporting the very significant discovery of a star with four planets, orbiting closer to the star than Mercury is to our Sun.
Grey told Stargazing Live:
“That is amazing. Definitely my first scientific publication … just glad that I can contribute. It feels very good.”
Cox was clearly impressed by the new discovery:
“In the seven years I’ve been making Stargazing Live this is the most significant scientific discovery we’ve ever made.”
A breakthrough for citizen science
So just what does this discovery signify? First, let’s be clear: this is no publicity stunt, or a bit of fake news dressed up to make a good story. This is a real scientific discovery, to be reported in the scientific literature like other discoveries made by astronomers.
It will help us understand the formation of our own Earth. It’s also a step towards establishing whether we are alone in the universe, or whether there are other planets populated by other civilisations.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that this discovery joins the list of more than 2,300 known exoplanets discovered by Kepler so far. There are thousands more candidate planets to be examined.