Another 15 exoplanets within habitable zone discovered - by amateur astronomers

First Posted: Jan 07, 2013 05:47 PM EST

The project Planet Hunters today announced the discovery of another 15 exoplanets within the "Goldilocks" zone around their respective stars, where the planet is at the right distance from a star to have liquid water. The project enlists the help of "citizen scientists" to help sort through the huge amount of data provided by NASA's Kepler mission.

Planet Hunters is part of the Oxford University project Zooniverse. The volunteers behind Planet Hunters examine brightness measurements taken by Kepler for over 150,000 stars looking for signs that there could be planets orbiting them. When a planet passes in front of a star, there should a noticeable and temporary drop in brightness.

One of the identified planets is already checked and confirmed by the Keck telescope, with roughly the size of Jupiter and orbiting a star similar to our Sun. That planet has been named "PH2 b," possibly standing for "Planet Hunters 2 b," since it is the second planet discovered by Planet Hunters to be confirmed.

Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University thinks that their are even more moons than planets, and many of them lush and habitable: "Jupiter has several large water-rich moons - imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we'd see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats - a surprising scenario that might just be common."

Dr. Ji Wang of Yale University also has great expectations for PH2 b, saying: "We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life. I can't wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now."

The paper announcing the discovery of the planets was submitted to Astrophysical Journal and has more than 40 Planet Hunter volunteers listed as authors. The projects assumption that the human brain is better at analyzing the data from Kepler than current computer algorithms was apparently correct, with the host of new discoveries now announced.

Mark Hadley, one of the volunteers listed as an author of the paper, said, "Now, when people ask me what I achieved last year I can say I have helped discover a possible new planet around a distant star! How cool is that?'

This is the kind of "crowd-sourcing" approach which becomes ever more popular in multiple areas, including research and forecasting.

Dr Chris Lintott said: 'These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers. It's remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.'

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