Citizen scientists discover rare exoplanet

Although NASA's Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel and ended its mission in 2018, citizen scientists hav...

Posted: Jan 8, 2019 5:47 AM
Updated: Jan 8, 2019 5:47 AM

Although NASA's Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel and ended its mission in 2018, citizen scientists have used its data to discover an exoplanet 226 light-years away in the Taurus constellation.

The exoplanet, known as K2-288Bb, is about twice the size of Earth and orbits within the habitable zone of its star, meaning liquid water may exist on its surface. It's difficult to tell whether the planet is rocky like Earth or a gas giant like Neptune.

Celestial bodies and objects

Exoplanets

Government organizations - US

Karakoram Range

Mountains (by name)

NASA

Neptune

Observatories and telescopes

Physical locations

Planets and moons

Science

Space and astronomy

Space exploration

US federal departments and agencies

US government independent agencies

Earth

The planet is in the K2-288 system, which contains a pair of dim, cool M-type stars that are 5.1 billion miles apart, about six times the distance between Saturn and the sun. The brightest of the two stars is half as massive as our sun, and the other star is one-third of the sun's mass. K2-288Bb orbits the smaller, dimmer star, completing a full orbit every 31.3 days.

K2-288Bb is half the size of Neptune or 1.9 times the size of Earth, placing it in the "Fulton gap" between 1.5 and two times the size of Earth. This is a rare size of exoplanet that makes it perfect for studying planetary evolution because so few have been found.

The discovery was announced Monday at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

"It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon," said Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student in astrophysics and lead author of a paper describing the new planet that was accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal.

Although all of the data from the Kepler mission was run through an algorithm to determine potential planet candidates, visual manpower was needed to actually look at the possible planet transits -- or dip in light when a planet passes in front of its star -- in the light curve data. Kepler observed other events that could be mistaken for planet transits by a computer.

But the "reboot" of the Kepler mission in 2014 that led to the K2 mission allowed for multiple observation campaigns that brought in even more data. Every three months, Kepler would stare at a different patch of sky.

"Reorienting Kepler relative to the Sun caused miniscule changes in the shape of the telescope and the temperature of the electronics, which inevitably affected Kepler's sensitive measurements in the first days of each campaign," said study co-author Geert Barentsen, an astrophysicist at NASA's Ames Research Center, in a statement.

Those first three days of data were ignored, and errors were corrected in the rest of the data gathered.

But the scientists couldn't do it alone. There were too many light curves to study on their own.

So the reprocessed, "cleaned-up" light curves were uploaded through the Exoplanet Explorers project on online platform Zooniverse, and the public was invited to "go forth and find us planets," Feinstein said.

In May 2017, citizen scientists began discussing a particular planet candidate, but it had only two transits, or passes of the planet in front of its star. The scientists needed at least three to mark it as an interesting target.

Feinstein and Makennah Bristow, an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville, worked as interns at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, searching the data for transits. They had noticed the same system and its two transits.

But the citizen scientists found the third transit hiding in those first few days of data that had been all but forgotten.

"That's how we missed it -- and it took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it," Feinstein said.

Follow-up observations were made with multiple telescopes to confirm the exoplanet.

There will be more opportunities for citizen scientists to help discover exoplanets. NASA's latest planet-hunting mission, TESS, will be providing more light curves that are full of potential planets waiting to be found.

Last year at the American Astronomical Society meeting, it was announced that citizen scientists helped discover five planets between the size of Earth and Neptune around star K2-138, the first multiplanet system found through crowdsourcing.

This year, Kevin Hardegree-Ullman, postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, announced that the Spitzer space telescope followed up on that discovery and discovered a sixth planet, K2-138 g, smaller than Neptune, that orbits the star every 42 days.

"This is only the ninth system discovered containing six or more planets," he said.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 33068

Reported Deaths: 2068
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9524558
Lake3494175
Cass15897
Allen141966
St. Joseph122134
Hendricks114268
Hamilton113292
Elkhart110128
Johnson1092106
Madison58459
Porter50522
Bartholomew49034
Clark47941
LaPorte42022
Tippecanoe3823
Howard37824
Delaware37636
Jackson3721
Shelby36822
Hancock32727
Floyd31739
Boone30535
Morgan27724
Vanderburgh2592
Montgomery23417
White2308
Decatur22431
Clinton2221
Noble20421
Grant19721
Dubois1903
Harrison18921
Henry16910
Greene16824
Monroe16512
Warrick16528
Dearborn16521
Vigo1538
Lawrence15223
Miami1401
Putnam1357
Jennings1294
Orange12422
Scott1203
Ripley1106
Franklin1098
Kosciusko1011
Carroll933
Daviess8416
Steuben812
Marshall801
Newton7610
Wayne756
Fayette747
Wabash742
LaGrange682
Jasper661
Washington511
Jay490
Fulton471
Clay461
Rush452
Randolph453
Jefferson431
Pulaski410
Whitley383
Owen351
Sullivan341
DeKalb331
Brown331
Starke323
Perry280
Wells270
Benton260
Huntington262
Knox250
Tipton241
Crawford230
Blackford222
Parke190
Spencer191
Switzerland190
Fountain182
Posey160
Gibson142
Adams131
Ohio130
Warren121
Vermillion100
Martin90
Union80
Pike60
Unassigned0161
West Lafayette
Scattered Clouds
67° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 67°
Kokomo
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 64°
Rensselaer
Overcast
59° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 59°
Fowler
Overcast
59° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 59°
Williamsport
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 64°
Crawfordsville
Overcast
62° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 62°
Frankfort
Overcast
66° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 66°
Delphi
Broken Clouds
62° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 62°
Monticello
Broken Clouds
62° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 62°
Logansport
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 64°
Cooler, less humid weather ahead by the weekend.
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events