Armchair Astronomers Help NASA Search For Mysterious Planet 9

Astronomers have been theorizing the existence of a mysterious ninth planet in our solar system since last January, but they haven’t been able to spot it yet and now they’re asking for help.

A citizen scientist project called “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” asks armchair astronomers to browse through images from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and look for evidence of Planet Nine.

Although no one has spotted the elusive Planet Nine yet, evidence shows something is pulling on objects in our solar system in a way scientists can’t explain, as Arizona State University astronomer Adam Schneider told Science Alert.

“If it exists, Planet 9 could be large, maybe 10 times the mass of Earth but orbiting far out beyond the Kuiper Belt.”

Participants in the citizen scientist project are being asked to look for false positives, artifacts that look like real objects in the solar system, according to the Zooniverse website hosting Backyard Worlds.

“Spiky images of stars, especially variable stars, are everywhere. Worse, are the optical ghosts, blurry blobs of light that have been scattered around inside WISE’s instruments. These can hop back and forth, or even change color. These artifacts can easily fool our image processing software.”

NASA already has software that scans images taken from high powered telescopes scanning the night sky, but they can easily miss something important because of all the background noise, according to Marc Kuchner, NASA’s lead researcher on the project.

“There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored. Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.”

On the Zooniverse website, armchair astronomers can page through millions of “flipbooks,” brief movies that show how small patches of the night sky have changed over the years.

[Image by NASA]

Anything noticed by the citizen scientists will be tagged for examination by NASA scientists and share in the credit of any discovery being made.

Instead of finding the mysterious Planet Nine, it’s entirely possible the armchair astronomers could spot traces of brown dwarfs, strange low-mass projects that emit very little light, but glow with infrared radiation.

They measure somewhere between a star and a Jupiter-sized planet in size and could be lurking outside the solar system between Neptune and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, along with Planet Nine.

The WISE project used in the Planet Nine project scanned the entire night sky between 2009 and 2010 making a number of discoveries including finding strange galaxies, black holes, and near-Earth asteroids.

The armchair scientist project Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a partnership between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse.

[Image by NASA]

The NASA-funded website does more than just look for missing planets, however; it uses citizen scientists to help unravel the mysteries of the universe. Using the combined power of the world’s citizen scientists the people-powered platform hopes to enable research that would not normally be possible or practical.

The website also hosts the Planet Hunters project that asks participants to look for signs of alien worlds by noticing the light difference in images as the planets pass in front of their host stars.

There’s also the Higgs Hunters project that asks researchers to find the “God particle” by looking for particles that simply appear out of nowhere. The website hosts a number of other projects ranging from literature to science.

Do you think Planet Nine exists?

[Featured Image by Aphelleon/Thinkstock]

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