Amateur Sky Watchers Win January

Starwatching. Photo Credit: SUHEJLO. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

If January is any indication, 2018 is the year for amateur sky watchers and data sifters. Last month, The Astronomical Journal published a paper entitled, "The K2-138 System: A Near-Resonant Chain of Five Sub-Neptune Planets Discovered by Citizen Scientists." And just last week, a hobby astronomer discovered a NASA satellite, IMAGE, thought lost in space for more than a dozen years.

In a citizen science project called Exoplanet Explorers set up last April, two California scientists asked members of the crowdsourcing research website Zooniverse for their help. They asked participants to look at readings from the Kepler telescope, which searches the sky for exoplanets (planets orbiting stars beyond our sun), to see if they saw changes in the data that indicated that exoplanets were present. (Exoplanets are too small and too far away to be seen directly, so to detect them, observers look for a brief change in the brightness of a star, which indicates that a planet is passing in front of, or transiting, it.) Professional astronomers had not yet had a chance to look over this data, and they wanted to get some initial readings from the public to help them narrow down areas worth further exploration.

Over the course of a three-day period, thousands of volunteers took a look at the data and found, among other things, readings that indicated a star with multiple transits. These citizen scientists highlighted readings that pointed to four planets orbiting the star, and astronomers looking further at the data found a fifth, as well as the suggestion a sixth planet may exist, as well. These five planets, which range in size between that of Earth and Neptune, make up a planetary system called K2-138 and line up in a pattern called resonance, which means that each planet takes 50% longer to circle its sun than the planet next in line closer to the star. While it is possible that scientists would have found this system eventually on their own, the contributions of citizen scientists certainly speeded up the discovery.

In another coup for the contributions of science volunteers, on January 20, Canadian Scott Tilley, an amateur visual and radio astronomer, was reviewing satellite transmission data for signs of the classified ZUMA SpaceX mission that went off course and was presumed lost early in the month. Instead, he found readings that were consistent with a minisatellite that hadn't been heard from since December 18, 2005—the IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) satellite.

IMAGE had been launched in 2000 to help measure how changes in the solar wind affect the Earth's magnetosphere. The satellite went quiet after almost six years of relaying data and eventually NASA wrote it off as having experienced a systems failure. However, it seems that the internal mechanisms of the satellite eventually reset themselves, putting the satellite back into communication with anyone on Earth who was still listening.

After Tilley picked up the signal and others around the globe confirmed they, too, were receiving it, he reached out to NASA with his findings. This week, NASA confirmed that IMAGE was, once again, extant and that they were working to gain some control over the satellite's outdated computer systems.


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