A word from the Kepler Team

Dear Planet Hunters: Dr. Natalie Batalha, Deputy Science Team Lead for the Kepler Mission, asked us to post the following message:

Welcome! We are so glad you’re here!

I’m sure I speak for the entire Kepler team when I say how happy we are that Zooniverse is being applied to the Kepler data. For some time now, I’ve watched the public actively work with archived data from other missions. The folks at Unmanned Spaceflight, for example, regularly share the latest images they’ve doctored up from Solar System missions like MER and Cassini. And the SOHO mission recently hit a milestone, discovering its 2000th comet on December 26th, 2010. The discoverer was not part of any formal SOHO science team but rather an astronomy student at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. I’ve added “Citizen Scientist” to my urban dictionary and appreciate its tremendous potential.

That’s all well and fine when it comes to Martian landscapes, comets, and sunlight glinting off the surface of methane lakes millions of miles away. But how in the world could we entice the public to look at boring old lightcurves? PlanetHunters.org has done exactly that. Not only are thousands of people looking at light curves, they are getting just as hooked on their variety as we are! Welcome to the ranks of those who love light curves.

The Kepler spacecraft is a new piece of technology. Never before have humans stared at stars with such unwavering precision and patience. And whenever humanity does something new, there are sure to be surprises. One of the biggest surprises to me so far is the impact that Kepler is having on stellar astrophysics. Who knew, for example, that a star like RR Lyrae — one of the brightest and well-studied objects in the sky — would blow the dust off textbooks written on this class of star? Who knew we’d see such a symphony of variability occurring just below the noise levels typical of ground-based telescopes?

But the name of the game here is planet hunting. I’ve heard people wonder why they should bother to hunt for planets when the Kepler team has spent years designing savvy computer algorithms to do exactly that — algorithms that can tease signals out of the noise that the human eyes cannot even see. The answer is simple.

Kepler relies, in large part, on automation. We are a relatively small team. There are currently less than 15 scientists working in the Kepler Science Office here at Ames. In the early days, there were only 5 of us! Let’s say we divided up the 150,000 stars we are monitoring amongst the 15 scientists at Ames. We’d each be responsible for 10,000 stars. If we spent only 60 seconds looking at each star, it’d take us over 160 hours to finish out allotment. That’s a solid month of doing nothing else but looking at light curves. Just in time since more data comes down from the spacecraft each month and the process would have to start all over again. Such a plan would never have earned taxpayer dollars. We need our scientists doing other things — like monitoring the instrument and optimizing the software and vetting out the false positives and interpreting the results. And so we write computer software that combs through the data searching for transit-like features.

It’s a challenge to design a one-size-fits-all approach to transit detection. The transit are buried in the light curves of stars with widely different properties and behaviors. You’d build one kind of tool for finding a needle in a haystack but a different kind of tool for finding a needle in a swamp. We don’t even yet know what all the possibilities are because we’ve never looked at stars with this kind of precision.

Another consideration is that the software pipeline requires 3 transits for complete modeling and pipeline generation of they key statistics that are used to vet out the false positives — astrophysical signals masquerading as planet transits. It’s certainly true that we’ve gone back and cherry-picked some of the more compelling light curves displaying less than 3 transits — especially those of the brightest stars. However, many such signals are still lurking in the archive.

So what else did our algorithms miss? Ah, let’s find out, shall we? We’re here with you, ready to help. Come stand here in the crow’s nest and experience the thrill of discovery with us. We welcome your keen eyes!

A huge thank you to the folks at planethunters.org for putting this together.

Natalie Batalha

Deputy Science Team Lead

Kepler Mission

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