NASA scientists have confirmed 42 alien planets found by amateur astronomers. These 42 alien planets were found via a crowdsourcing project called Planet Hunters overseen by Zooniverse, where volunteers use their web browsers to sift through NASA data gathered by the Kepler satellite telescope. 15 out of these 42 alien planets may be habitable since they lie within the so-called Goldilocks Zone around a star, a limited range of orbiting distance considered to be optimal for life.
Crowdsourcing projects excel in distributing tasks that cannot be automated with current technology. Ars Technica explains why a crowdsourcing project like Planet Hunters allows to find the 42 alien planets when the time-limited professionals and their fancy supercomputers may have overlooked them:
“The Planet Hunters project allows volunteers to look through various light curves, sorting out possible planet transits from other natural variations in starlight. These might arise from dim binary companions, brown dwarfs, or fluctuations in the star’s output due to stellar weather. The premise of Planet Hunters is that human beings can sometimes be better at distinguishing between the different types of light curves than automated computer routines.
“As with other citizen science projects, Planet Hunters makes sure multiple sets of eyes look at each candidate light curve. That ensures double- and triple-checking of results, helping to avoid false positives. Finally, professional exoplanet astronomers look at the light curves identified by the citizen scientists and make the ultimate decision. This process allows researchers to have a lot of confidence in the identifications—and the volunteers turn out to be very good at their work.”
According to Yahoo News, Chris Lintott of the University of Oxford helms the Zooniverse projects and he believes it’s clear that with a simple Web-based tutorial and a well-designed user interface, non-scientists can perform real research-related tasks:
“These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers. It’s remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.”
Out of the 42 alien planets found 15 candidate planets found by the Planet Hunters crowdsourcing project may be in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These candidates are awaiting confirmation by professional astronomers, but one of these Jupiter-size planets called PH2 b features a moon similar to the fictional Pandora in the movie Avatar. The picture at the beginning of the article depicts what artists think the view might look like from this moon.