-an interview with Al Schmitt by Jennifer and Rebekah Kahn
Al Schmitt is a long-time Planet Hunters member. Having lived during the space program era and been an avid follower of subsequent space missions, Al found that Planet Hunters enabled him to actively participate in planetary science research. In fact, he used his job experience as a software engineer to develop LcTools, a light curve display and signal analysis toolset designed specifically for the Planet Hunters community. Al is also a researcher on the HEK team “The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler” whose goal is to determine the occurrence rate of exomoons. Al has co-authored many published research papers in association with Planet Hunters and the HEK project. We thought that it would be of interest to other fellow Planet Hunters members to learn more about LcTools and how Al is able to pursue his passion as a citizen scientist.
You can learn more about LcTools on his website: https://sites.google.com/a/lctools.net/lctools/. More Information on the HEK project can be viewed here: http://hek.astro.columbia.edu/index.html ————————
PH: Would you tell us a bit about your background? AS: Career wise, I was a software engineer for 35 years developing applications in various engineering fields including computer diagnostics, computer aided design (integrated circuits and printed circuit boards), and medical software (heart pacemakers and defibrillators). In 2010, I retired early in part to pursue science on an amateur basis.
PH: When did you first become interested in Astronomy? AS: I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s closely following our manned space program which I found extremely exciting. Planetary science became more important starting in the mid-1970s with the Viking missions to Mars. My interest in planetary science continued to grow with the Galileo and Cassini missions. As I approached retirement, I knew that I wanted to contribute to the world of planetary science in a meaningful way.
PH: Is this why you joined Planet Hunters? AS: Yes. I joined in April 2011 a few months after the website became fully operational. Over the next couple of months, I spent a great deal of time classifying stars and identifying transit candidates. This was a big learning period for me since I didn’t have any prior experience in this area.
PH: How did you become involved with the HEK project and the search for exomoons? AS: In June 2011, Gerald Green started a thread in the PH science forum for discussing potential moon and ring signals seen in Kepler lightcurves. I joined the discussion and quickly decided that exomoon research would be my new focus area. At about the same time, I read a research paper by David Kipping which showed model exomoon signals based on his LUNA algorithm. Armed with this knowledge, I performed my own visual exomoon survey for several hundred KOIs and then sent him the results. A few months later, David asked me to join his new research project called HEK – The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler.
PH: Was your work on the HEK project related to your development of LcTools? AS: Very much so. LcTools was born out of necessity. I needed a software tool to perform large-scale visual surveys of Kepler lightcurves in a fast and efficient manner with the ability to record candidate signals of any type. In early 2012, I developed an application called LcViewer to accomplish this. LcViewer formed the basis for a much larger system of applications called LcTools developed over the next six years.
PH: What are the other applications in LcTools? AS: In addition to LcViewer, there are five other major applications. LcSignalFinder automatically detects and records periodic signals found in a set of lightcurve files. LcGenerator builds lightcurve files in bulk for use by LcViewer and LcSignalFinder. LcReporter generates an Excel spreadsheet showing all the user defined signals recorded by LcViewer. The last two applications in the system are LcStacker and LcStackAnalyzer. LcTools is described in detail on my website. The website also includes links to Kepler and K2 lightcurves designed to work with LcViewer and LcSignalFinder. Over 200,000 files are available for the Kepler project and about 350,000 files for the K2 project.
PH: Can LcTools be used by other individuals? AS: Indeed it can. Initially I built the system for myself but I quickly realized that it could be extremely useful to other serious researchers especially those with a strong science, technology, or astronomy background (LcTools is not designed for entry level users). Currently, I have 63 registered users spanning the citizen science, academic, and professional domains.
PH: What are some of the notable highlights of LcTools? AS: First and foremost, the system is designed to be fast and easy to use. Operation is simplified wherever possible. The system is optimized for high volume processing of lightcurves. Second, the system supports signals of any type whether astrophysical in origin or not. Signals may be periodic, quasi-periodic, or non-periodic. This permits a wide range of phenomena to be studied. Third, signals can be imported into LcViewer and LcSignalFinder from various external sources when a lightcurve file is loaded. For example, project based signals such as KOIs, K2OIs, and TCEs can be imported from the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Signals can also be imported from public signal libraries designed to be shared between individuals or groups across the network via shared Google Drive folders. Use of public signal libraries opens the door to collaborative research projects. Fourth, the system supports a comprehensive set of high-level features typically found in professional lightcurve analysis packages. Major features include detrending of lightcurves, automatic detection of periodic signals, and phase folding of periodic signals.
PH: What new features are planned for LcTools? AS: The most important upcoming feature is support for the TESS project. My goal is to have a product ready for customers shortly after MAST releases the first batch of lightcurves to the public hopefully sometime in November or December. The high volume capabilities of LcTools will be essential for handling the large number of lightcurves expected.
PH: You are listed as co-author on a number of research papers. Which one do you consider most significant and why? AS: The most significant would be the last HEK paper published a year ago. In it, we mention a strong exomoon candidate dubbed KOI-1625b I. Over the past eight months, David Kipping and Alex Teachey have been very busy vetting the candidate (I have not been part of this effort since it’s well outside my field of expertise). If the candidate can pass all of the vetting tests, then we will have discovered the first confirmed exomoon. Such a discovery would usher in a new era of research, similar to what the first confirmed exoplanet did back in the mid-1990s.
PH: What advice would you give veteran PH citizen scientists moving forward? AS: Don’t be afraid to investigate new phenomena! Kepler and K2 lightcurves may be host to a wide variety of intriguing phenomena such as moons, rings, trojans, and comets. By no means has everything been found! There are important discoveries still to be made if you’re willing to search. ———————— Thank you Al for discussing your personal involvement with research in the field of Planetary Science. We are excited to see what the new release of LcTools will entail, and hope that your experience in this field will also inspire other citizen scientists.