Parts of the government may be shut down in the U.S., but NASA is still searching for new planets with the help of a team of volunteer astronomers who are making some wonder why we need to keep paying (well, when they were getting paid) the pros. Not only that, the discovery was made using data from the now-retired Kepler Space telescope – data which had been analyzed before by the professionals who didn’t spot this major discovery. Can they help find lost keys or remotes?
"It took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it."
Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student lead author of a paper on the discovery of the planet (published in the latest Astrophysical Journal), described how the amateurs beat the pros in a presentation at the meeting of the American Astronomy Society in Seattle this week. As an intern at NASA in 2017, she was part of a team looking at Kepler data for transits – the dimming effect on a star when a planet passes in front of it. They found two for the K2-288 system – a binary pair of cool M-type (red) stars that are 5.1 billion miles apart or about six times the distance between Saturn and our sun – but the astronomers’ code requires three transits before declaring an exoplanetary discovery.
Later investigations showed that NASA researchers had ignored data taken while Kepler was repositioning itself. The software was tweaked to better process it, but the new data was never reviewed manually instead of by computer -- a critical error according to Joshua Schlieder, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who worked with Feinstein and co-authored the paper.
"Inspecting, or vetting, transits with the human eye is crucial because noise and other astrophysical events can mimic transits."
Luckily, the data was sent to Exoplanet Explorers, a volunteer project which studies Kepler data for transits. It was the Exoplanet Explorers who noticed a third transit in that early data from the repositioning period – data that led to the announcement of the discovery of K2-288Bb, an exoplanet about 1.9 times the size of Earth orbiting the smaller of the K2-288 binaries every 31.3 days. Its size puts K2-288Bb in the so-called “Fulton gap” – a rare group of exoplanets between 1.5 and 2 times that of Earth, making them good candidates for planetary evolution comparisons with Earth. Even better, K2-288Bb is in the “Goldilocks zone” of its star, putting it in the proper temperature and radiation zone to contain the liquid water needed for life.
That potential for K2-288Bb is supported by a separate paper, published this week in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and co-authored by Harvard's Abraham Loeb (the same Loeb who suggested the ‘Oumuamua comet might actually be an alien-built probe), which states that low mass M-type stars the size of K2-288 are "theoretically capable of sustaining biospheres with the same productivity as the Earth."
While we continue to debate whether “amateur athletes” are really professionals, there’s no question that the amateur volunteers at Exoplanet Explorers are a valuable part of astronomy, not only by making new discoveries overlooked by the pros but by keeping the memory and hard work of the Kepler Space Telescope alive.
After that nice compliment, could one of them help me find my remote?