Elusive planets and dim failed stars may be lurking around the edges of our solar system, and astronomers from NASA and UC Berkeley want the public’s help to hunt them down.
Through a new website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, anyone can now help search for objects far beyond the orbit of our farthest planet, Neptune, by viewing brief “flipbook” movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.
A faint spot seen moving through background stars might be a new and distant planet orbiting the sun or a nearby brown dwarf.
WISE’s infrared images cover the entire sky about six times over. This has allowed astronomers to search the images for faint, glowing objects that change position over time, which means they are relatively close to Earth.
Objects that produce their own faint infrared glow would have to be large, Neptune-size planets or brown dwarfs, which are slightly smaller than stars.
People have long theorized about unknown planets far beyond Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto, but until recently there was no evidence to support the idea.
Last year, however, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of an as-yet-unseen ninth planet in the solar system’s outer reaches.
This “Planet 9” would be similar in size to Neptune, but up to a thousand times farther from the sun than Earth, and would orbit the sun perhaps once every 15,000 years. It would be so faint as to have so far evaded discovery.
At the moment, the existence of Planet 9 is still under debate. Meisner thinks it’s more likely that volunteers will find brown dwarfs in the solar neighborhood.
While Planet 9 would look very blue in WISE time-lapse animations, brown dwarfs would look very red and move across the sky more slowly.
WISE images have already turned up hundreds of previously unknown brown dwarfs, including the sun’s third- and fourth-closest known neighbors. He hopes that the Backyard Worlds search will turn up a new nearest neighbor to our sun.
“We’ve pre-processed the WISE data we’re presenting to citizen scientists in such a way that even the faintest moving objects can be detected, giving us an advantage over all previous searches,” Meisner said.
Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for later follow-up observations by professional astronomers.
Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project.
Visit Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.
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News source: UC Berkeley. Content is edited for style and length.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is credited to NASA.