On December 16, 2010, the Zooniverse launched Planet Hunters to enlist the public’s help to search for extrasolar planets (exoplanets) in the data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Back then we didn’t know what we would find. It may have been the case that no new planets were discovered and that computers had the job down to a fine art. The project was a gamble on the ability of human pattern recognition to beat machines just occasionally and spot the telltale dip in a star’s brightness due to a transiting planet that was missed by automated routines looking for repeating patterns.
Nearly four years later, Planet Hunters has become a success beyond anyone’s expectation. To date 8 published scientific papers have resulted from the efforts of nearly 300,000 volunteers worldwide. Planet Hunters has discovered 9 planet candidate co-discoveries with the Kepler effort, over 30 unknown planet candidates not previously identified by the Kepler team, a confirmed transiting circumbinary planet in a quadruple star system (PH1b), a confirmed Jupiter-sized planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star (PH2b), and identified the 7th planet candidate of a 7 planet star system.
Today in collaboration with JPL’s PlanetQuest, the Planet Hunters science team and the Zooniverse are proud to announce the launch of Planet Hunters version 2.0. We’ve taken your feedback and the lessons learned over the past 3.5 years to build a fast new interface that we think will take the project to the next stage. Using the Zooniverse’s latest technology, Planet Hunters 2.0 is built specifically with the next generation of transiting exoplanet surveys in mind, including the new K2 mission, which repurposes the Kepler spacecraft.
Kepler had been monitoring ~170,000 stars for the signatures of transiting exoplanets over the past 4 years in the Kepler field located in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. The new-two wheel Kepler mission dubbed ‘K2‘ will have Kepler observing brand new sets of 10,000-20,000 stars every 75 days. These stars are different from the sources that Kepler had been monitoring in the past. Your eyes will be one of the first to gaze upon these observations. Most of the K2 target stars will have never before been searched for planets, providing a new opportunity to find distant worlds. K2 observations will be made available by NASA and the Kepler team to the entire astronomical community and the public shortly after being transmitted to Earth and processed. We aim to get them on Planet Hunters 2.0 as fast as we can.
We think that Planet Hunters 2.0 will play a key role for finding extrasolar planets in the age of K2, and we have built a site we think can deliver the best science and find interesting planets with your help. We aim for rapid identification and dissemination of planet candidates discovered by Planet Hunters in the K2 era. You’ll hear more about additional new features and tools built into Planet Hunters 2.0 for analyzing K2 light curves closer to the release of the first K2 engineering observations sometime this month.
We also know there is much interesting and valuable science left to do with the Kepler field data. Much of the four years of Kepler field data has not been searched by the original Planet Hunters, and there may very likely be planets lurking in the light curves missed by the computers waiting for you discover. The new Planet Hunters will start by focusing all 17 quarters of observations on a subset of the Kepler field stars starting with cool M dwarf stars, the most common star in the Galaxy. We’ll use the classifications from these select set of stars from the original Kepler mission as well the new K2 observations to study the variety of planetary systems and their frequencies.
You’ll hear more about the science goals of Planet Hunters 2.0 and new functionality, tools, and guides built into the website in the coming days and weeks. We’re excited about this new phase of the project, and we hope you are as well. We don’t know what we’ll find, but with your help, we can’t wait to find out! Whether you’re new to the project or a seasoned veteran, with the new and improved Planet Hunters you can search for planets around other stars like never before.
It’s just possible that you might be the first to know that a star somewhere out there in the Milky Way has a companion, just as our Sun does.
Fancy giving it’s a try?