British TV Audience Discovers Potential New Planet

by VirtualAstro on January 19, 2012

Artist concept of the new planet. Credit: BBC

A public “mass participation” push initiated on a UK television program to find planets beyond our Solar System has had an immediate result! On Monday, January 16, 2012 “BBC Stargazing LIVE” began its first of three nights of television programs live from Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK. The series was hosted by Professor Brian Cox, comedian Dara O’Briain along with a number of other well known TV personalities, astronomers and scientists. There was even a guest appearance via satellite link from Captain Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon.

As well as the main TV program, there were numerous local events across the UK and the viewers could “mass participate” in activities such as looking for extra solar planets with the citizen science project, Planethunters.org.

The website hosts data gathered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, and asks volunteers to sift the information for anything unusual that might have been missed in a computer search. People are especially adept at seeing things that computers do not and the BBC Stargazing Live event was a golden opportunity to get many people looking. During the event, over a million classifications were made and 34 candidate planets found on the website in 48 hours.

On the last show of the series on Wednesday 18th January it was announced, that in particular, one planet candidate looks extremely promising, as it has been identified multiple times by PlanetHunter participants.

The planet is circling the star SPH10066540 and is described as being similar in size to Neptune, circles its parent every 90 days and is about a similar distance from its parent star as Mercury is from our Sun. It could be described as a hot Neptune.

Chris Holmes from Peterborough UK and Lee Threapleton also from the UK found the planet by searching through time-lapsed images of stars looking for the periodic dips in brightness that result every time a planet passes in front of (transits) one of those stars.

Credit: planethunters.org

A transit has to be observed several times before a planet will be confirmed. For the orange dwarf star SPH10066540, five such events have now been seen in the Kepler data making it a strong candidate for an extra solar planet.

“There’s more work to be done to confirm whether these candidates are true planets,” wrote the PlanetHunters team on their blog, “in particular, we need to talk to our friends on the Kepler team – but we’re on our way.”

The NASA Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, has been searching a part of space thought to have many stars similar to our own Sun.

You can try and find a new planet too by visiting planethunters.org it is incredibly simple and easy to do and requires no previous knowledge of astronomy.

How many more planets will be discovered?

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Creator of Meteorwatch, meteorwatch.org and virtualastro.org

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