Researchers at Queen’s want public’s help in identifying undiscovered planets


19 Oct 2021

A long-exposure view of the NGTS telescopes during testing. Image: ESO/G Lambert

Armchair astronomers could be the first to detect extrasolar planets hiding in five years’ worth of observatory footage.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast are looking for volunteers to help them find extrasolar planets. These planets are also called exoplanets, meaning planets from outside our solar system.

As a partner of the Planet Hunters Next-Generation Transit Search (NGTS) project, Queen’s University Belfast is reaching out for help from the public. NGTS is a collaboration between nine different universities and observatories.

Future Human

The initiative involves asking the public to pore over five years of footage, showing stars from other solar systems. The footage was gathered by 12 robotic telescopes in the European Southern Observatory Paranal Observatory in Chile. These telescopes are sensitive enough to detect the light signatures of exoplanets.

When an exoplanet is positioned at just the right angle and passes in front of its host star, the exoplanet might block some of the observable light from the star. This will cause the star to dim slightly for a few hours. The telescopes capture light from thousands of stars every 10 seconds, looking for these signs of exoplanets.

Computers examine the footage and flag anything that might be an exoplanet. The NGTS astronomers then review these potential exoplanets. Most of the events found by the computers are not planets, but a small number are newly discovered extrasolar planets.

While the computers are an efficient way to look for new planets, the researchers think there might be some planets in the footage not spotted by them. And people tend to be better at picking out the signals.

Prof Christopher Watson, the deputy head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s, said: “We need the public’s help to sift through the observations flagged by our algorithms to help search for these possible hidden planets not found in the first review.”

Volunteers could be the first to spot an undiscovered exoplanet hidden in the data.

Anyone is able to examine the data and search for as of yet undiscovered planets at Zooniverse.org.

By Méabh Lunn

Méabh Lunn is a transition year student at Sandymount Park Educate Together. They write for the school newspaper, The Sandymount Park Press, and have a keen interest in journalism. Science has always been a key interest of theirs, especially genetics, marine biology and space exploration.