Out in space, NASA's Kepler mission keeps watch on more than 150,000 stars. Its job is to see if those stars dim ever so slightly—because of the presence of an orbiting planet. Kepler has already found more than 20 distant worlds that way.
The problem is, Kepler collects so much data that researchers can't comb through it all to see what's really a planet and what's something else blocking a star’s light. So they rely on algorithms to ID the most promising signals to follow up.
But the human brain is pretty good at pattern recognition too, and may sometimes beat the algorithms. That's the idea behind the Planet Hunters project, a Web site where anybody can dig into Kepler data to look for exoplanets.
The effort is paying off. Citizen scientists have spotted two blips in the data that are almost certainly planets. A possible third planetary system, which is now being checked out, may contain multiple worlds. Six Planet Hunters users are listed as co-authors on a forthcoming study announcing the findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
So go to planethunters.org—and help discover a new world.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]