Stony Brook University alumna Jacqueline Faherty, who is presently a senior scientist and senior education manager at the American Museum of Natural History, alongside astrophysicist Marc Kuchner, is working on a citizen science project that could help find the ambiguous ninth planet in our solar system.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 was launched in February of this year and since then, the project has attracted around 42,000 volunteers who have participated in more than two million classifications, according to the project’s website. The project received a processing grant from NASA’s Astrophysics Data Analysis program on Sept. 8, which will keep it fully funded for the next several years.
“Planet Nine is not an official term,” Renu Malhotra, a professor of planetary science from the University of Arizona, said. The term is informal and some people denote the hypothetical body, “Planet X.”
The purpose of the project is to show users a collection of photos taken by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope over a certain time period; users can then help spot objects of interest. The so-called Planet 9 could be among those objects that appear to be moving in between images, but oftentimes they are more likely to be brown dwarfs, celestial entities larger than planets but smaller than stars.
Malhotra was one of the scientists who presented pieces of evidence that support the existence of a planet beyond the Kuiper Belt, the circular disk of ice bodies extending from Neptune’s orbit. In a nutshell, the distribution of asteroid-like objects called “minor planets” in the Kuiper Belt and beyond, are not distributed in a way that is influenced by the planets we already know, Malhotra said. “So there has been this hypothesis that there must be an unseen major planet that’s shaping the distribution of these distant minor planets.”
Out of more than 360,000 patches of sky photo collections uploaded onto the Backyard Worlds project website, 43 percent are so far complete. Volunteers have submitted more than 13,000 possible objects of interest, and currently there are more than 200 candidates who require a telescope follow-up. Kuchner said he has only uploaded one-third of the sky and the WISE telescope is continuing to send in new data.
“Finding the candidates is pretty hard, but easy for our citizens,” Faherty said. “To follow-up, it has to be done by the professionals.”
Just six days after the “Backyard Worlds” project launched, Bob Fletcher, a teacher from Tasmania, submitted an object of interest which he spotted. His finding was soon followed by a few other users. The Backyard Worlds team pulled images from various archives that were not shown to users and crossed-referenced the object. Everything seemed to add up.
Faherty then used NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility to record a spectrum of the cold object, which showed the object’s unique chemical signature. Only then, she and her team were able to confirm that the object was indeed a brown dwarf. In May, the team published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters to share their findings.
Discoveries like this can help scientists map out our solar neighborhood, Faherty said, adding that the objects revolving the sun can help us understand the history behind the formation of the solar system and the structure of the Milky Way galaxy we live in.
The project received a processing grant from NASA’s Astrophysics Data Analysis Program on Sept. 8, which will keep it fully funded for the next several years.