Scientists seek unlikely recruits in exoplanet search

Scientists are looking to make the hunt for distant worlds a group effort.

A team from MIT and the Carnegie Institution for Science recently released a trove of observations made in the search for far-off planets in our solar system.

The open-sourced data drop encompasses 61,000 measurements of over 1,600 stars in our galactic neighborhood.

Jennifer Burt, a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said the massive amounts of data led the team to ask for public input.

“There’s a lot of data to look through,” Burt said. “While our team has done a pretty thorough job of looking for planets, there’s always a chance that we missed something.”

The move looks to shift towards community-oriented science and encourage STEM field pursuits for high school and university students.

All of the analyzed data was published in the Astronomical Journal. The dataset can also be combined with the publicly available, Systemic Console 2 to analyze each star’s, meaning anyone can search for new planets.

The data was compiled through radial velocity observations, a technique used to observe stars and looking for a characteristic “wobble” in each star’s light, which in turn could signal the presence of an orbiting planet, Burt said.

As it travels around its host star, the planet’s gravity causes the star to move towards or away from earth during its orbit.

“We see the star’s light shift to being bluer or redder, respectively,” Burt said. “This shift in the light’s color is due to the same Doppler effect that makes a fire truck’s siren sound high pitch as it approaches you, and then the lower pitched once it passes and starts traveling away from you.”

Over 100 potential exoplanets have been found to date, including one orbiting the fourth-closest star to our solar system, GJ411. Burt said one of the challenges in detecting planets with radial velocity data is the technique requires multiple observations from months to years, even decades to refine a search.

All observations were taken from the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES), which is mounted on the Keck Observatory’s telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The telescope and HIRES is designed to split a star’s incoming light into a colorful array. Through the split, scientists can study the precise intensity of color channels and wavelengths. All of the data will help citizen scientists reach out to researchers, ultimately furthering research findings and information, Burt said.

Now that we know that there are so many exoplanets there are in the galaxy for scientists to detect/characterize, I think it makes sense for research groups to start collaborating,” Burt said. “We’re hoping that publishing this dataset will encourage other groups to combine our observations with their own datasets, enabling new exoplanet detections or revealing hints of exoplanet signals that can then be vetted through future follow up efforts.”

The new field of exoplanet research lends itself to unexpected discoveries, and Burt said the initial phase of studying exoplanets was shrouded in mystery. Combining original surveys and more recent space-based photometry missions like NASA’s Kepler mission has shown exoplanets to be quite common.

“Many stars in the galaxy probably host at least one planet,” Burt said. “I like to think that NASA and other organizations are getting much better at communicating these kinds of results to the public.”

Burt said the most valuable thing to come out of the public data drop is yet to be seen, but said the response from astronomers online with questions or comments is promising.

“We’ve had people reach out to us about the dataset, which is leading us to new insights about the types of stars we’ve surveyed and how active those stars are,” Burt said. “I’m hoping that in the long term this release will help to set a new precedent for how different exoplanet teams interact in terms of data sharing and collaborative efforts.”

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