Here’s a fact: the age of connectivity means that a single human being armed with an internet capable device has a historically unprecedented level of power. The calculator function alone on your smart phone would have made you a full-on wizard in the Middle Ages. But, as we all know, we mostly use that power to post pictures of our food and send GIFs of Luke Skywalker brushing dust off his shoulder.
However, every once in a while, we come across something that reminds us of how a powerful this connectivity can really be. The Exoplanet Explorers Program is just such a something. In fact, this group of amateur scientists has just discovered a star system with five rocky planets!
The Exoplanet Explorers Program (gonna call it EEP from now on, cuz I’m lazy), is a program founded by Caltech staff scientist Jessie Christiansen that uses crowdsourcing to engage interested citizens scientists in helping comb through the staggering amount of data provided by the Kepler Space Telescope. For the past three years Kepler has been engaged in the “K2” mission, tasked with finding exoplanets wherever it can. In this time, it has logged around 287,000 stars and that number grows by around 10,000 every month. The result, of course, is tons and tons of data that has to be examined by actual human people. And that’s where EEP comes in.
But before we get into that, here’s a very rudimentary explainer of how an exoplanet is discovered. The process involves measuring a star’s luminosity or brightness. If that luminosity is observed to dip, it is an indicator that a large object (like a planet) has transited in front of the star. EEP then provides participants with this data from Kepler and allows them to comb through it. If a potential candidate for exoplanets is discovered, participants vote on whether they think the data is positive for planets or not. A minimum of 10 “yes” votes is necessary for the star to be flagged for further study.
In this case, EEP discovered not one, but five planets orbiting an orange dwarf star called K2-138, 620 light years from Earth. The planets are all “Super Earths”, meaning they are rocky and larger than Earth, but smaller than Neptune. Now, before you start booking travel, know that due to their proximity to their star (they’re all pretty close), none of these planets is suitable for vacation. But that’s not really the point. The point is, that regular Julias and Joes, working together online were able to make this discovery. And that’s pretty rad.
If you’d like to get involved, you absolutely can. Jump through this link to the Exoplanet Explorers Program page and sign up. It looks like they will walk you through the science and how to work the data. And, who knows, maybe you’ll help discover some planets and one of those planets might be inhabited. And then, through some technology we don’t understand, you can connect with an individual on that planet. And then, you know, send them a GIF of Luke. And, obviously, an explainer about Star Wars. And then they will see that our mythology is centered around the binary ideas of good and evil and conquest and submission and, of course, violence. And then… well I guess invasion would be the natural next step. Because the inhabitants of that planet can’t just let this violent race continue to grow technologically. Anyway, it’s a mess. But have fun!
Also, if you’d like to check out the pre-print of the paper the group submitted to The Astronomical Journal, you can do that here.
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