July 14, 2024
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Solar System

High school citizen scientists join the hunt for exoplanets – Sky & Telescope

Students observing on the roof with multiple telescopes
Galaxy Explorer high school students set up Unistellar eVscopes to collect data on a star first observed by the TESS satellite. Their goal: to capture a second transit of a planet in a tight orbit around the star.
SETI Institute

There has never been a better time to be an amateur astronomer. Recent advances in affordable “smart” telescopes have ushered in a new era of citizen science that blurs the lines between professionals and amateurs. Professional astronomers are especially interested in the help of sky watchers when it comes to the confirmation and characterization of exoplanets. Recently, two groups of citizen scientists (some of whom are just in high school!) have contributed to academic studies confirming the existence of different planet candidates.

He first projectled by Dan Peluso (SETI Institute and LSST Discovery Alliance), used an organization of citizen scientists, known as Unstellar network. Organized by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and telescope company Unistellar, this network helped confirm a warm exoplanet slightly smaller than Saturn. The members also found evidence of a second planet in the same system. He second projectled by Lauren Sgro (also at SETI), verified a warm Jupiter with the help of the Unistellar Network and NASA. Exoplanet surveillanceanother group of amateur observers.

These efforts aren’t just fun and educational; they also serve an important scientific function: filling in observational gaps that professional scientists struggle to fill. For example, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has so far identified 7,203 candidate planets, many of them through a single transit of the world in front of its star. But only 475 of these worlds have multiple transits or other information to confirm that they are real detections. That’s partly because TESS observes each slice of the sky for only about 27 days. Observing time is where citizen scientists can make a difference, by observing stars that are already suspected of hosting a planet.

“There are not enough professional astronomy facilities and professional astronomers in the world to keep track of all the TESS candidates,” Sgro says. “That’s why I think citizen science is absolutely necessary. Without them, we could miss the discovery of an exoplanet that would really allow us to finally understand planet formation in our own solar system.”

Networks of amateur astronomers can not only avoid the limited observing time, visibility, and unpredictable weather conditions of professional facilities, but can also coordinate multiple observations around the world to cover an object for hours or even days at a time. Several international groups are (or have been) involved in such efforts: ExoWatch, Kilodegree Extremely Small Telescope Tracking NetworkExoplanet Watch and Unistellar Network, to name a few.

Graph of the planet's radius as a function of its mass
This graphic compares the mass and radius of a newly confirmed planet (marked with an arrow), as well as its orbital period (indicated by its color) to those of other known planets. The new planet is unusual, as there are few known planets with similar sizes and masses. Planets in the solar system are shown in magenta for context.
SETI Institute

The aforementioned studies, led by Peluso and Sgro, are intriguing, not only because of the participation of citizen scientists but because of their objectives, which are “warm” gas giants that orbit their star very closely and have equilibrium temperatures below 1000 K (1340 °F). One planet is slightly smaller than Saturn (shown in the graphic above); the other belongs to the Jupiter class.

Unlike their cold counterparts in the solar system and hot Jupiters discovered elsewhere, these worlds appear to represent a transitional stage. Future monitoring of these worlds could help us understand how a system's populations of hot, temperate, and cold giant planets form, evolve, and possibly migrate.

As part of Peluso's study, he mentored galaxy explorers, an astronomy program for high school students at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California. The group is part of the Unistellar Network, and during weekly sessions at the Science Centre, students are taught about space science and observation on Unistellar “eVscopes”. These smart telescopes perform live processing to produce images that can be viewed via a smartphone or tablet. The photometric data can then be uploaded via the telescope's phone app to an online catalogue, which can be accessed by professional astronomers for compilation and analysis.

“It's great to be able to see things I know from astronomy books with the telescope or on my phone,” says Richard Purev (Oakland Technical High School). “But one of the best parts of observing is not just looking at the stars, but also looking around me, at my friends and colleagues.”

The Galaxy Explorers collected data for the Peluso exoplanet confirmatory study during a memorable all-night observing session on February 18, 2023. Between hourly maintenance of the rooftop telescope, the students were entertained with movies, games, musical performances, and more.

In addition to inspiring a love of sky watching, the program has also paved the way for several students to pursue degrees in astronomy. Naina Srivastava just graduated from Campolindo High School and will attend Columbia University in the fall to study astrophysics.

“This experience made me realize that I’m really interested in astrophysical research,” she says. “So I cold-called the head of the astrophysics department at Berkeley. I’ve been doing research with her for about two years.”

Peluso believes that initiatives such as those using Unistellar's smart telescopes could represent a positive change for astronomy. “In the right circumstances,” he says, “they can contribute to a more democratized science, in which students and the public can learn by doing, and the 'doing' actually contributes to important research: a motivating and attractive victory for the public! education and science!”

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