With new tools like the James Webb Space Telescope, we’re discovering more exoplanets than ever and even peering into their atmospheres. Now, NASA is asking for the public’s help in learning more about some of the exoplanets that have already been detected in a citizen science program called Exoplanet Watch.
“With Exoplanet Watch you can learn how to observe exoplanets and do data analysis using software that actual NASA scientists use,” said Rob Zellem, the creator of Exoplanet Watch and an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “We’re excited to show more people how exoplanet science is really done.”
The Exoplanet Watch project has two parts, one involving observing for those who have access to a telescope, and one involving identifying exoplanets in existing data. Even if you don’t have access to equipment other than a computer or smartphone, you can still help in learning about exoplanets by requesting access to data collected by robotic telescopes and assisting with data analysis. That’s needed because observing exoplanets passing in front of their host stars — in events called transits — is only half of the challenge of finding a new planet. These transits result in dips in the star’s brightness, but these dips are very small at typically less than 1% of the star’s brightness.
These transits need to be observed multiple times to work out a planet’s orbit, so that is the primary task of the project — getting members of the public to help refine data on already known exoplanets. By having humans do tasks that computers are still quite poor at, like recognizing patterns, more data can be analyzed and the pace of exoplanet discovery and characterization can be improved.
You can follow the instructions on the Exoplanet Watch website for how to perform the data analysis, which walks you through the steps researchers would use to do this work. It’s a little more involved than other citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo, but that makes it a great introduction to this type of research if you fancy going deep.
The Exoplanet Watch program has been running since 2018 but was only available to a limited number of people. Recently, it has been opened up to be completely accessible to the public, aiming to engage new people in astronomy as well as to collect more data. “I hope this program lowers barriers to science for a lot of people and inspires the next generation of astronomers to join our field,” said Zellem.