Many of the discoveries made in astronomy require large numbers of people to collaborate and work together. Although most of this work is performed by professional astronomers there are occasions when members can help. Citizen scientists helped to find a 379-light-year distant gas giant planet by combing through data from the NASA telescope.
To identify planet TOI-2180b, the citizen scientists used data from TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). It orbits a star of similar mass as our sun and lasts for 261 days. This makes it one of the more distant gas giants outside the solar system. Tom Jacobs, one of the citizen scientists who participated in the project, said that “discovering and publishing TOI-2180 B was a great team effort demonstrating that professional Astronomers and seasoned citizen scientists can successfully collaborate.” In a statement. It is synergy at its best.
Transits are times when a planet passes between two stars and Earth. This is how many exoplanets can be found. Astronomers can learn about the planet’s properties by looking for a dip in the star’s brightness. This requires that the telescope, planet, and star be properly aligned. This works best for planets close to their stars.
Diana Dragomir, a researcher, stated that “with this new discovery we are also pushing to the limits of what kinds of planets can we extract from TESS observations.” Although TESS was not designed to locate long-orbiting exoplanets of this magnitude, our team is still finding them with the support of citizen scientists.
Computer algorithms are used to detect transits. However, this planet orbited far from its star so only one transit was recorded in the data. Citizen scientists were able to help identify potential exoplanets using light curves and graphs of brightness over time.
Paul Dalba, a fellow researcher, said that “the manual effort that they put into it is really important” and that it was impressive because it is difficult to write code that can navigate a million light curves reliably and identify single transit events. “This is the one area in which humans still beat code.”
Both citizen scientists and professionals are eager to see what TESS observes again on February 1st when they hope to confirm the planet’s orbit.
Jacobs stated, “We love contributing science.” Jacobs said, “And this type of surveying is my favorite because it allows me to discover new territory that has never been explored by humans.”