The night sky is a vast; fascinating entity that evokes in us the curiosity and awe of the origins of our being. The invention of the telescope in the early 1600s by Galileo Galilei magnified the enormity of interstellar space. Continuing discoveries of celestial objects unlock the mysteries and dynamics of our universe. Factual findings published in scientific journals to pseudo-worlds orbited by spaceships on sci-fi productions have elevated the ordinary person’s interest in space investigations. NASA is now making it possible for “citizen scientists” to search for undiscovered new worlds.
NASA has a new website that lets everyone analyze brief movies constructed from images of the cosmos and search for new worlds. The website, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, publishes movies, that highlight objects that have gradually moved across the sky. The images are captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), and everyone can participate in searching for unidentified objects.
WISE assists NASA in identifying potentially dangerous near-earth objects (NEO).
After completing its original mission scanning the sky, from 2011 to 2013, generating the most thorough examination at mid-infrared wavelengths available WISE was reassigned to its current NASA mission. NEO’s are asteroids and comets who’s trajectory in space can bring them into the vicinity of Earth’s orbit. Given its present objective, the project has been renamed Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).
The website gets its name from an as yet undetected but theoretically predicted planet. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech, while studying the orbits of several objects in a distant solar system, observed anomalies indicating that the paths of the objects were affected by the gravity of an invisible planet. This latent planet was nicknamed “Planet 9.” If predictions are accurate, Planet 9 could be discovered by WISE.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes to analyze images because we easily isolate the important moving objects while disregarding background details. Sophisticated computer software is overwhelmed by image artifacts when processing millions of moving bodies. People from anywhere in the world can attentively inspect millions of “flipbooks,” on the website to look for interstellar objects. “Flipbooks” are concise animations showing small segments of the sky changing over a period of time. Moving objects identified by participants as potential celestial objects of interest will be prioritized for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Any scientific publications that result from discoveries initially identified by participants will credit the participants for their contributions. “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said team member Aaron Meisner of UC Berkeley, one of the collaborating institutions on this project with NASA among others.
Citizen scientists like you can use the data from WISE to search for unknown worlds in and beyond our solar system. Next time you gaze at the night sky and appreciate the captivating mysteries it presents, know that you can help discover one of its objects. Maybe you will spot a NEO and save our planet from a cosmic catastrophe.