On The Hunt For High-Altitude Microorganisms


The United States Rocket Academy has announced an open call for entries in its High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, a citizen science project that will attempt to collect samples of microbes that may be lurking in Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of space.

Earth’s biosphere has been discovered to extend much higher than once thought — up to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) above the planet’s surface. Any microorganisms present at these high altitudes could be subject to the mutating effects of increased radiation and transported around the globe in a sort of pathogenic jet-stream.

What sort of microbes may exist at the upper reaches of the atmosphere?

Citizens in Space, a project run by the U.S. Rocket Academy, is offering a $10,000 prize for the development of an open-source and replicable  collection device that could successfully retrieve samples of high-altitude microorganisms, and could fly as a payload aboard an XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

XCOR Aerospace is a private California-based company that has developed the Lynx, a reusable launch vehicle that has suborbital flight capabilities. Low-speed test flights are expected to commence later this year, with incremental testing to take place over the following months.

Any proposed microbe collection devices would have to fit within the parameters of the Lynx’s 2kg Aft Cowling Port payload capabilities — preferably a 10 x 10 x 20 cm CubeSat volume — and provide solutions for either its retraction (in the case of extended components) or retrieval (in the case of ejected hardware.)

The contest is open to any US resident or non-government team or organization, and submissions are due by February 13, 2013. The chosen design will fly on 10 contracted Lynx flights in late 2013 or early 2014, and possibly even future missions.

Find out more about the challenge on the Citizens in Space site here, and check out an animation of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft below:

Venus Transit — There’s an App for That!

Transit of Venus by NASA's TRACE spacecraft Image credit: NASA/LMSAL


There have been only six Venus transits since the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century. It was not until 1761 that the transit of Venus on June 6th was observed as part of the first ever international scientific observation project, instigated by Edmond Halley. Astronomers across the globe viewed the transit and the differences in their observations were used to triangulate the distance to Venus and, using Kepler’s laws, the distance to the Sun, the other planets and the size of the Solar System. Though the method used has not changed in the 251 years since, the equipment most certainly has.

For this transit, we have technology on our side.

In previous Venus Transits, expeditions were sent out far and wide and the 1761 transit was eventually recorded by 120 individual astronomers from 62 locations across Europe, America, Asia and Africa. They used only the simple telescopes of the day, fitted with dense filters, a pendulum clock to time the transit and quadrants to determine their exact latitude and local time. It is hardly surprising that their observations varied widely. Their calculations put the Sun’s distance between 130 and 158 million kilometres.

Transits happen in pairs. After 121 years a transit occurs followed 8 years later by another, then 105 years pass before the next pair and then the pattern repeats. Prior to the transit of 2004 the most recent transit was in 1882. There were none during the whole of the 20th century! We now approach the last chance to view a transit in our lifetime, the next will not occur until 2117.

Luckily, we’ve got some newly developed technology to help make this the most-observed transit ever!

Astronomers Without Borders are part of the Transit of Venus Project to get as many people around the world to observe the transit and to participate in a collective experiment to measure the Sun’s distance. To this end they have produced the Venus Transit phone app, available to download free for both iTunes and Android. Once downloaded you can start to practice timing the interior contacts of ingress and egress using a simulation of the transit. This is not as easy as it seems, as the black drop effect makes precise timing tricky so practice is definitely recommended. The app will tell you how far out you are so that you can perfect your timing and it will also predict times of contact based on your location together with times of sunrise and sunset.

On the day of the transit, the app will record the exact GPS time and your location, which is sent to the global database. Afterwards you can access your data on the website’s map to edit your entry, and upload descriptions, text, images, or movies and view other entries as well. This transit will be visible over most of the Earth except for parts of West Africa and most of South America, so download, get practicing and become part of a once in a lifetime, global citizen science experiment!

Find out more at Transit of Venus

Help Track the Effects of Light Pollution with GLOBE at Night


Going on right now is your last chance in 2012 to take just a few minutes to get involved in the GLOBE at Night campaign to measure the brightness of your night sky. GLOBE at Night is a citizen-science project to raise awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to make naked-eye observations of the night sky in your area.

Here’s all the info you need in order to participate in GLOBE at Night:

Participating in GLOBE at Night requires only five easy steps:

1) Find your latitude and longitude.

2) Find Orion, Leo or Crux by going outside more than an hour after sunset (about 8-10pm local time).

3) Match your nighttime sky to one of the provided magnitude charts.

4) Report your observation.

5) Compare your observation to thousands around the world.

You can also use the new web application data submission process. The GLOBE at Night website is easy to use, comprehensive and holds an abundance of background information. The database is usable for comparisons with a variety of other databases, like how light pollution affects the foraging habits of bats.

People in 115 countries have contributed over 75,000 measurements during the past six years, making GLOBE at Night the most successful light pollution awareness campaign to date. So join in and help the cause!

Moon Mappers! Contribute to Lunar Science

Want to contribute to lunar science? The MoonMappers citizen science project is now live at CosmoQuest.org, and you can become part of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s science team by exploring high-resolution Lunar images and mapping out scientifically interesting features. MoonMappers has been in a testing phase since January, and during the beta period, early participants marked over 150,000 craters and more than 4,000 other interesting features. With your help, scientists will be able to better determine ages of different regions, find historic spikes in the impact rate, determine lunar regolith depth and what may lie under the crust, and make conclusions about the physics of giant explosions on the Moon’s surface.

“Craters can reveal all sorts of different properties about the Moon and planetary surfaces in general,” said project co-science lead Stuart Robbins, from the Southwest Research Institute.
Continue reading “Moon Mappers! Contribute to Lunar Science”

Get Your Own Unprecedented 3-D View of the Moon


Love 3-D images? Interested in maps? Want to explore the Moon? Then a new Kickstarter project may be just what you are looking for. Jeffrey Ambroziak, creator of a specialized 3-D map projection method, will be producing what he calls the first true 3-D map of the Moon, and he is offering space enthusiasts the chance to get either digital or paper copies of the map, created from recently released data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Interest in the project has skyrocketed, and while the goal of $5,000 has already been reached by more than double that amount, Ambroziak is now thinking of what more he can offer to backers of his PopView 3D Moon Map.

“We’re at a place now where you can do some interesting research on your own, and it doesn’t necessarily require a large institution,” Ambroziak said by phone. “I love the idea of using Kickstarter to give interested and passionate space aficionados the opportunity to work with us.”

The maps will include not only 3-D views of the Moon’s surface, but on the “front side” will be “National Geographic-style” graphics and information.

Ambroziak said the backers who fund his project will be instrumental choosing the mapping locations and the information that is included.

“This will be very a very collaborative effort to pick the things we will put on the front of the map and the areas that we actually map in 3-D,” he told Universe Today. “As the Kickstarter project description makes clear, we are going to leverage the knowledge of all involved to produce a map that is as informative as it is innovative while letting everyone experience our excitement as the project takes shape. And in the end, everyone gets a copy of the map!”

Ambroziak added, “In the current age with NASA’s budget cuts and the space agency looking towards private enterprise more, there is now a place for interested people to create very interesting and useful space products. We spend billions of dollars to gather incredibly beautiful data of the Moon and Mars and much of it just sits around. We are looking to do our part to bring this data to life, and I’m proof of that you don’t have to sit around and wait for NASA to make an image from LROC data. We don’t have to wait anymore, we can do it ourselves.”

Ambroziak has been overwhelmed that his project is so popular. “I love the idea of the feedback that I’m getting already from people who are so excited about this project,” he said. Most gratifying was a top level pledge of $1,200 from former astronaut and shuttle pilot William Readdy, pledged $1200 to the project who wished Ambroziak “godspeed” in the effort. “It’s pretty neat when astronauts see the importance of what is being attempted,” Ambroziak said.

His patented Ambroziak Infinite Perspective Projection (AIPP) is a map projection method used for three-dimensional stereo visualization of geographic data, which allows viewers to see precise representation of data in 3-D, no matter what angle or distance the image is being viewed. He detailed the method in his book, Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-Dimensional Mapmaking, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) and has previously created 3-D maps of Antarctica and Mars, which have been displayed at museums such as the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I asked Ambroziak how far along he was with the project.

“I have downloaded all of the LROC imagery and digital elevation information,” he said. “I have further processed the image data to stretch out the contrast, computed shadows from the digital elevation model, and mixed the computed shadows back into the imagery to improve appearances. AIPP is then applied as desired to create 3D images. Specifically, imagery and digital elevation data is combined in accordance with a few chosen AIPP parameters (vertical exaggeration, view plane elevation, etc.) to produce the AIPP map.”

But that is only the technical part of the project, as the “front side” of the maps will be more artistic.

“I will be able to poll the backers for their preferred area of interest,” he said. “In short, you back the project, you have a say in the mapping of the Moon! Ultimately, I would like to perform a systematic mapping of the entire surface of the Moon in accordance with the USGS quad-map nomenclature and format. This is just the first step. This is Kickstarter – not start and then end.”

Check out the Kickstarter page for the “prizes” or incentives are for the various levels of funding. They range from getting a digital copy emailed to you, to complete posters, to an invitation to dinner for you and a guest with the Ambroziak, with food and drinks on him.

CosmoQuest: Taking Citizen Science to the Next Level

“X” marks the spot for a new place for Citizen Science on the web. It’s called CosmoQuest and the collaborators of this new website invite you to come visit and do more than just click your mouse. Besides contributing to real science for NASA space missions, there are also places to learn, converse, hang out and socialize.

“We’re building a community that recreates an academic and research facility,” said Pamela Gay, from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, who is familiar to listeners of Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy, and readers of her blog StarStryder. “We’ll be doing open science in an open-source way.”

Universe Today is one of the partners for CosmoQuest, along with Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy and the BAUT Forum (Bad Astronomy Universe Today forum) that Fraser Cain and Phil created for online discussion.

“Fraser and Phil successfully built a community within the BAUT Forum, and we see many of the same people there that are subscribers to our podcasts,” said Pamela. “One of the ideas behind CosmoQuest was to see if we could take this community of people that are interested in content and transform them into a community of people who are not just reading about or listening to astronomy and commenting on our feeds, but are also actively engaged in doing astronomy and science and want to learn more.”

Our readers have probably noticed –and hopefully participated in or watched — the new Weekly Space Hangouts that cover the news of the week, and the live telescope feeds that Fraser has been doing with amateur astronomers from around the world. This is all stems from CosmoQuest, and the CosmoQuest website will be the place where you can find all the feeds for the Hangouts and livestream star parties, and soon you’ll be able to sign up to get email notifications of these upcoming events. There will also be podcast feeds, a blog, an events calendar, and a forum. Later, there will be free (and premium) online classes, lectures, and other ways to participate and learn more about astronomy.

“We’ve got amateur astronomers out there who are doing amazing observations with their telescopes,” Fraser said. “We’ll be able to share tips and observing techniques, as well as exposing more people to the night sky. There will also be talks by scientists and experts in the field. In a way, this will be a way for those interested in astronomy to participate and learn without having to pay $1,000 a credit to get an advanced degree.”

But Citizen Science is the major part of CosmoQuest. “We know that the general public who are interested in science can contribute to science in meaningful ways,” said Pamela. “We’re building tools to bring researchers together with the public.”

CosmoQuest’s first project, which is currently in beta, is called Moon Mappers, which uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Screenshot from the Moon Mappers tutorial

“Right now in beta, we have full functionality of two interface tasks,” said Stuart Robbins from the University of Colorado Boulder, a co-lead for the Moon Mappers science team. “There are ‘Simply Craters’ and ‘Man vs. Machine.’ In the former, users are asked to draw a circle to trace out a crater. They click in the center of the crater, drag outwards, and release. They can also flag features that they think are interesting to point out to the science team. Man vs. Machine is the same thing, except I’ve run an automated crater detection algorithm to find craters in the image already. We ask users to correct ones it got wrong, remove ones it marked as craters that aren’t, and add craters it missed. We’re trying to study a few things with that interface, including whether it saves time and how we can improve our algorithms.”

The goal of Moon Mappers is to find the most effective and accurate way to map the Moon.

“Do we have people do it all by themselves? Do we have people modify the outputs of crater-finding algorithms (which we know are only accurate to 80% or better)? Under what lighting conditions are both humans and software most accurate in what they do?” Pamela said. “We’re looking at how we can most effectively map the Moon as quickly as possible through a combination of humans and computers using NASA imagery from LRO.”

In beta, they want to find any problems with the interface.

“What we really need are people who don’t know the project to come in and actually use it and point out what we may have missed in terms of functionality, bugs, or other things,” said Stuart. “For example, when we first went live on January 9, there was a user in the Forum discussion, Justin (“Briliu”) who made several interface change suggestions. We’ve made them all.”

They also want to make sure that the tutorials to train the Citizen Scientists works well, which will help in creating future programs, which will include data from the Dawn mission, MESSENGER, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pamela and Stuart both have ample experience in leading Citizen Science projects, as Pamela has been with the Zooniverse project for several years, specifically Moon Zoo, as has Stuart.

“One of the advantages of Moon Mappers is that because we are a much smaller and more open community we are willing to say yes to almost anything that we have the ability to construct,” said Pamela. “One of our biggest differences from Zooniverse is our intent to go open source with all of our code. This means that in those instances when we can’t help someone, we can say. ‘here is our code, we’ll help you get started.'”

CosmoQuest has already posted the code for their Google Hangout On Air + Twitter social media mashup.

Pamela added that CosmoQuest will differentiate itself by stressing community-building and learning.

Community partners for CosmoQuest include The Planetary Society, Astronomers Without Borders, the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics and educational partners are the Ward Bleecher Planetarium, Swinburne Astronomy Online and the Galileo Teacher Training Program.

Check out CosmoQuest and Moon Mappers.

Galaxy Zoo Reveals Curious ‘Violin Clef’ Quadruple Galaxy Merger


About a month ago, a Galaxy Zoo contributor named Bruno discovered a very unique galaxy merger in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data. The merger appeared to be a triple, or possibly quadruple system, which are indeed quite rare, and it includes curiously thin and long tidal tails. The Galaxy Zoo team has been informally referring to this merger as the “Violin Clef” or the “Integral” based on the unique shape as shown above.

What about this merger make it so interesting to scientists? What can they learn from these type of galaxy mergers?

Galaxy Zoo contributor Bruno had some insights on what makes the merger so interesting, stating: “These are some really beautiful tidal tails – They are extremely long and thin and appear curiously poor in terms of star formation, which is odd since mergers do tend to trigger star formation.” Bruno also added at the time of discovery: “There is no spectrum so we do not know the redshift of the object. It is also not clear if the objects at either end are associated or just a projection.”

(Note: Redshift is a term used to measure distance to distant objects. The higher the number, the older and more distant the object)

Based on Bruno’s curious discovery, the Galaxy Zoo team put in significant efforts to learn more about this merger. Galaxy Zoo team member Kyle Willett provided an update this week, highlighting several new insights, along with more information on this merger’s significance.

Close-Up view of Violin Clef galaxy merger. Image Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey
( http://www.sdss3.org )

One of the additional reasons the system is of scientific interest is that while merging galaxies are quite common in our universe, the merging process is fairly quick compared to the lifetime of a galaxy. What is not common is to observe a system with long tails and multiple companions, which gives researchers an opportunity to test their models of galaxy interaction against a system “caught in the act”.

Researchers are also interested in the content of galaxies and their tails – specifically the gas and stars. In most mergers, there is a compression of gas by gravity, which leads to a short burst of new star formation in the galaxies and their tails.

The resulting star formation results in young, hot stars which are typically blue. (Note: Younger/hotter stars are bluer, older/cooler stars are redder). What is odd about the Violin Clef merger is that all four galaxies and the tidal tails are red.

Willett stated “If that’s the case, then we want to estimate the current age of the system. Were the galaxies all red ellipticals to begin with, with very little gas that could form new stars?” Willett also added, “Or has the starburst already come and gone – and if so, how long-lived are these tidal tails going to be?”

By using analyzing the light given off by the merging galaxies, researchers can obtain a treasure trove of information. By measuring how much the spectra is redshifted, researchers can determine an accurate distance. In the case of the Violin Clef merger, an accurate redshift would let the team know for certain if all four galaxies genuinely belong to a single interacting group.

Once researchers have a distance estimate, they can study UV and radio flux data and determine an estimate of the total star formation rate. Additionally, if researchers have very accurate data from light received (spectroscopy), it’s possible to measure the relative velocities of each interacting galaxy, and build a sort of “3-D” picture of how the four galaxies are interacting.

Since there wasn’t any existing spectral analysis data of the merger system, Danielle Berg, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, observed the Violin Clef in September using the 6.5-meter Multiple Mirror Telescope in Arizona and provided the additional data needed to answer some of the questions the Galaxy Zoo team had about the system.

Spectral analysis of the "Violin Clef" galaxy merger. Image Credit: Danielle Berg/University of Minnesota/Multiple Mirror Telescope

After the team analyzed the spectral data, they learned that all four galaxies are at the same redshift (z=0.0956 +- 0.002), and as such, are most likely members of the same group. Further analysis reinforced the lack of evidence for strong star formation, which helps to confirm the red colors see in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data.

Based on these recent discoveries, the Galaxy Zoo team is putting out a second call for assistance on analyzing the Violin Clef merger. According to the team, the next step in the analysis will be working with simulations like the ones in Merger Zoo. Now that the team has confirmed the Violin Clef is almost certainly a quadruple merger, the number of merger models than need to be ran is greatly reduced.

How can citizen scientists help the Galaxy Zoo team with this step of their research?

You can start by visiting the Galaxy Zoo mergers project page at: http://mergers.galaxyzoo.org/

By participating in the Galaxy Zoo mergers project, you can identify simulations that resemble the Violin Clef. Your participation can also provide the Galaxy Zoo team with additional data which may enable them to have another scientific publication, plus these types of projects can be very fun and exciting to work with!

Learn more about becoming a Galaxy Zoo participant at: http://www.galaxyzoo.org/how_to_take_part

Source: Galaxy Zoo

Need an Excuse to Gaze at the Moon? International Observe the Moon Night is Coming!

This photo of the Moon was taken on October 2, 2011 in Angera, Lombardy, IT. Credit: Milo. Click image to see on Flickr.


Most of us space-minded folks don’t need an excuse to gaze upon the brightest object in the night sky – our own Moon. But just in case you need a reason or are hoping to convince some friends or family to take a look with you, there’s a special event coming up that encourages more people to take the time to take a gander at our closest and constant companion in space. Saturday, October 8, 2011 is the second annual International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN). Across the country and around the world, astronomy clubs, museums, observatories, parks, and schools will hold special events to introduce the public to the Moon. There will be telescopes to look through, activities to join, and presentations from experts in lunar science will be streamed to participating event locations.

“There will hundreds of events world-wide that will share the excitement of lunar science and explorations” said Brian Day, from the NASA Lunar Science Institute, who is one of the organizers of the event.

This photo of the Moon was taken on October 4, 2011. Credit: Amar Mainkar. Click to see the image on Flickr.

In a podcast for 365 Days of Astronomy and NLSI, Day said that right now an especially exciting time to engage the public in the Moon. (Listen to the podcast here.) A new generation of robotic probes has brought about a revolution in our understanding of our nearest neighbor in space. Our long-held view of a non-changing and dry Moon is now being replaced with an appreciation for the Moon as a dynamic body with significant deposits of water ice, a fascinating history, and a thin atmosphere that may play a role in a potential lunar water cycle. “It is indeed a New Moon!” Day said.

There’s excitement on the amateur front, as well. “Recent developments in technology have allowed amateur astronomers to image the Moon in detail that previously was only attainable from orbiting spacecraft,” Day said. “The work that they are doing and the imagery they are getting is just fantastic So, this is a great time to appreciate what is happening with the Moon on both the amateur and professional communities.”

(Thanks to amateur astronomers who have uploaded images to Universe Today’s Flickr group — the images included in this article are courtesy of Milo, Amar Mainkar and Marcopic3000.)

The overall goal for InOMN is to engage lunar science and education communities, amateur astronomers, space enthusiasts, and the general public in what has become an annual lunar observation campaign.

“The Moon will be at a favorable phase, and we are going to be able to see some really magnificent features,” Day said, “so it is a good time to show up at an International Observe the Moon Night event and take a look at what is happening in the sky.”

This image of the Moon was taken on Oct. 5, 2011. Credit: Marcopic3000. Click on image to see it on Flickr.

This year’s InOMN may provide a bit of an extra show in Europe and Northern Asia, as it is occurring on the night of the maximum of the Draconid meteor shower.

For more information and to find an InOMN event near you or to learn how to conduct your own InOMN event, visit http://www.observethemoonnight.org. The website includes information on events around the world, activities and downloadable information to allow you to host your own event, and much more.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group, post in our Forum or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Citizen Science: Help Find Life on Mars


Interested in helping NASA scientists pinpoint where to look for signs of life on Mars?

If so, you can join a new citizen science website called MAPPER, launched in conjunction with the Pavilion Lake Research Project’s 2011 field season.

How can the MAPPER and Pavilion Lake Research projects help scientists look for off-Earth life?

Since 2008, the Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) has used DeepWorker submersible vehicles to investigate the underwater environment of two lakes in Canada (Pavilion and Kelly). With the MAPPER project, citizen scientists can work with NASA scientists and explore the lake bottoms from the view of a DeepWorker pilot.

The PLRP team’s main area of focus are freshwater carbonate formations known as microbialites. By studying microbialites that thrive in Pavilion and Kelly Lake, the scientists believe a better understanding of how the formations develop. Through a greater understanding of the carbonate formations, the team believes they will gain deeper insights into where signs of life may be found on Mars and beyond.

To investigate the formations in detail, video footage and photos of the lake bottom are recorded by DeepWorker sub pilots. The data requires analysis in order to determine what types of features can be found in different parts of the lake. Analyzing the data allows the team to answer questions such as; “how does microbialite texture and size vary with depth?” and “why do microbialites grow in certain parts of the lake but not in others?”.

The amount of data to analyze is staggering – if each image taken were to be printed, the stack would be taller than the depth of Pavilion Lake (over 60 meters). If each image were reviewed one-by-one, the PLRP’s team would never be able to complete their work. Distributing the work to the general public solves the problem, due in part by spreading the massive work out over many volunteers across the Internet.

Since the PLRP 2011 field season Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research (MAPPER) MAPPER has been open to the general public. By opening MAPPER to the public, anyone can explore Pavilion and Kelly Lake as full-fledged members of PLRP’s Remote Science Team.

So how do volunteers use MAPPER to help the PLRP team?

Once volunteers create an account at: getmapper.com, the volunteers complete a brief tutorial, which provides the necessary training to tag photos in the PLRP dataset. MAPPER has ease-of-use in mind, providing users with a simple interface, which makes tagging features like sediment, microbialites, rocks, and algae easy. In case a user is unsure of how to tag a photo, examples and descriptions of each feature are available.

Screenshot of Mapper in action. Image Credit: NASA

In a manner similar to online games, each photo tagged earns the volunteer points which can be used to unlock new activities. Volunteers can also compete with other Remote Science Team members on the MAPPER leaderboard. Volunteers can also check to see how close each dataset is to being completely reviewed and see how much they have contributed to said dataset, as well as seeing what features have been tagged the most. Volunteers who tag a photo as ‘cool’ save said image to their Cool Photos album, allowing them to easily find the image at a later date.

PLRP Remote Science Team members from across North America, Europe and Asia have already been making discoveries in Pavilion and Kelly Lake. If you’d like to become a PLRP Remote Science Team member, visit: www.getmapper.com
You can also learn more by visiting the MAPPER Facebook page

Big Find: Citizen Scientists Discover Two Extrasolar Planets


Hip-hip hooray for citizen scientists! The first two exoplanet candidates have been identified by members of the public through the citizen science project Planet Hunters. The project, which began in December 2010, uses public archive data from the planet-hunting Kepler mission, and excitingly, the planets were found within the first month after the project began. One planet is potentially a rocky Earth-like planet, while the other is likely a gas-giant like Jupiter.

“I think it’s truly amazing that someone sitting at home at their computer was the first to know that a star somewhere out there in our Milky Way likely has a companion,” said Meg Schwamb, a Yale University researcher and Planet Hunters co-founder.

By all accounts, the Kepler mission has been a spectacular success – with over 1,200 planet candidates detected so far– and the data obtained by the spacecraft has been a treasure trove for scientists. But over 40,000 web users from around the world have been helping professional astronomers analyze the light from 150,000 stars in the hopes of discovering planets – and especially Earth-like planets — orbiting around them.

“These planet candidates just show what wealth of interesting gems still remaining to be found in the Kepler data,” Schwamb told Universe Today. She added that for the science team, the Planet Hunters project was somewhat of a gamble, as no one was sure human eyes would be able to spot things possibly missed by automated routines.

“The gamble paid off, and we’re all very excited about the discovery of these planet candidates,” she said. “These candidates have demonstrated the truly amazing power of human pattern recognition. Planet Hunters doesn’t replace the great work and the analysis being done by the Kepler team. But it has proven itself to be a valuable and complementary tool in the search for extrasolar planets.”

The Planet Hunters team sent the top 10 candidates found by the citizen scientists to the Kepler team, and two of the planets have survived the initial checks for false-positives, whether they are masquerading as eclipsing binaries, for example. Scientists used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) at Caltech to analyze the host stars and determined that two of the 10 met their criteria for being classified as planet candidates.

The two candidates were flagged as potential planets by several dozen different Planet Hunters users, as the same data are analyzed by more than one user.

The two candidate planets orbit their host stars with periods ranging from 10 to 50 days — much shorter than the 365 days it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun — and have radii that range in size from two-and-a-half to eight times Earth’s radius. Despite one planet having the potential to be a rocky world, it does not lie in the so-called “habitable zone” where liquid water, and therefore life as we know it, could exist.

Schwamb said to confirm a transiting planet, the team scientists will look at the radial velocities to measure the wobble of the star back and forth caused by the orbiting body.

“This allows you to get the mass of the orbiting companion,” she said. “Kepler was always intended to be a statistical mission. The majority of the over 1,200 Kepler planet candidates and the planet candidates found by Planet Hunters will not be confirmed with radial velocity measurements either because the star is too faint or the radial velocity signal caused by the orbiting planet would be smaller than the current sensitivity limits of the world’s best spectrographs. If it’s possible that we can confirm the presence of these planets with radial velocities measured on the Keck telescopes, we will definitely try.”

As of now, the Planet Hunter scientists, which also includes Yale astronomer Debra Fisher, say there is at least a 95% chance that these two candidates are bona fide planets.

Spurred by success, the Planet Hunters citizen scientist are now sifting through a new round of publicly available data from the Kepler mission in hopes of finding even more planets. “This is what we found after just a preliminary glance through the first round of Kepler data,” Fischer said. “There’s no doubt that, with each new round of data, there will be more discoveries to come.”

Read the team’s paper here. It has been submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.