Crowdsourcing the Stars

There are planets out there waiting for you to discover them. And when I say you, I mean you – and not after you’ve spent a decade getting degrees in astrophysics. Right now, people are harnessing the power of amateur astronomers to not only gather data on planets outside our solar system, but to discover new ones, and even brand-new kinds of cosmic bodies.

Come September you could be watching the eclipse of a distant star in the Orion constellation as a gigantic planet, thought to be fifty times larger than Jupiter and with colossal Saturn-like rings, blocks out part of the light that has travelled for a thousand years to greet hungrily waiting telescope lenses the world over.

While a star getting slightly dimmer may not be the most visually stunning phenomenon, Dr Hugh Osborn at the University of Warwick saw the thrilling hidden meaning in the astronomical records.

“We see two eclipses, one in 2008 and one in 2011, that look almost identical. We know how big it must be based on the duration of the eclipse, and it seems to be in the regime of a gas-giant like Jupiter up to a small star or brown dwarf.

“But we won’t know for sure until September – that’s when we predict that the eclipse will occur again and we can figure out exactly what is causing these mysterious dimmings.”

So, the call has gone out for stargazers to watch and record the passage of the mysterious object that orbits the foreign sun. But they won’t be doing it alone, or for nothing; the data they collect is put to good use by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) with impressive results.

“The core mission is to enable people to participate in scientific analysis, to be do-ers,” says Dr Stella Kafka, Director of the AAVSO. “We have observers all around the world, using telescopes, binoculars and DSLR cameras.”

These amateur astronomers are offered training and mentorship by the AAVSO, who furnish them with manuals and star charts available in fifteen languages. Collecting data for them can be as simple as taking a pair of binoculars away from the light pollution of the city, and comparing the brightness of a star with specific ones around it.

“Every time I travel I pack my binoculars and my charts and just go,” says Dr Kafka. “There are a lot of amateur astronomers out there who are discovering new variable stars every day, which are escaping professional astronomers’ attention.

“We are participating in science; there are just not enough professional observatories for us to get the information to figure out what they are.

“I’m really proud of my observers – they have more Nature publications than I have! They bring skills from their own work and their profession to astronomy. It’s wonderful to have a community dedicated to science that can provide the data.”

Not only will the data collected on Dr Osborn’s eclipse help solve that puzzle, this citizen science project represents the serious shift occurring in the way we look at science and scientists. It is no longer an exclusive club for the highly educated but something we share and participate in as a society, often for no gain other than the satisfaction that we did help discover something – whether it’s the ‘alien megastructure’ around Tabby’s Star (which Dr Osborn calls “actually just orbiting dust clouds”) or White-Dwarf pulsars, which Dr Kafka called “a missing link in the evolution of stars”.

But there is something else that drives people to spend their time and energy on this, and that, as Dr Kafka neatly articulates, is a sense of wonder.

“One of the first questions humans asked after they clothed themselves and fed themselves is… ‘what’s up there?’”

David Walker is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: starry sky, KGrif

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