It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.
Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.
NASA’s Universe of Learning team is comprised of scientists, engineers, and educators who connect the public to data, discoveries, and experts directly connected to NASA astrophysics missions. They also rely on a nationwide network of informal educators, scientists, and engineers who help NASA develop mission data and educational resources. Their purpose is to promote engagement between NASA and the public and encourage learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
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The Exoplanet Watch project involves users turning images of planetary transits into lightcurves, which involves the most widely-used and effective method of exoplanet detection to date. This is known as Transit Photometry (aka. the Transit Method), where periodic dips in a star’s brightness are attributed to planets passing in front of it (transiting) relative to the observer. This method is effective for exoplanet detection and constraining their sizes and orbital periods (which helps astronomers determine potential habitability).
By taking part in Exoplanet Watch, citizen scientists will get the chance to learn how exoplanet science is done from beginning to end, from data collecting and processing to data sharing and the publication of research papers that incorporate it. Participants are provided with free software called EXOplanet Transit Interpretation Code (EXOTIC), which allows them to convert telescope images of transiting exoplanets into lightcurves. The images can be taken by participants who have access to a telescope with a camera or can be requested using the project’s data checkout system by those who don’t.
This system contains many images taken by the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, a series of remote telescopes operated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Las Cumbres Observatory. Exoplanet Watch also has access to telescope data managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The materials used by the Universe of Learning are based on NASA’s collaborative work with the CfA, JPL, Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).
The results must then be uploaded to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Exoplanet Database and will be included on the Exoplanet Watch Results page. If these results are used in a scientific paper, the person providing them will be listed as a co-author and credited with contributing to exoplanet research. Users are also encouraged to subscribe to Exoplanet Watch’s Slack Workspace, where they will have the opportunity to participate in bi-weekly meetings, speak to professional astronomers, and collaborate with other citizen scientists.
As of January 2023, Exoplanet Watch participants have studied over 270 different exoplanets and created nearly 1400 light curves. Those interested are encouraged to check out the How to Participate page to learn more and to sign up for the monthly newsletter. As NASA states on the Exoplanet Watch website, no expertise or even equipment is required:
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an astrophysicist to actively participate in studying distant worlds. We’ll teach you what you need to know to become a citizen scientist collecting important data on exoplanets. No telescope? No problem! You can use our data checkout system to request data from an exoplanet observation to analyze yourself.”
Further Reading: NASA