SETI and its partner Unistellar have launched a new exoplanet discovery program for citizen scientists around the world.
Amateur astronomers known as the Single-Star Exoplanet Campaign will be able to help confirm the existence of an exoplanet — a planet orbiting a star outside the solar system — identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Reconnaissance Satellite (TESS).
They will do this by observing a possible exoplanet transit that occurs when a planet passes between its star and the observer, creating a temporary dimming of the star that can be recorded by ground-based telescopes. Most of the known exoplanets have been discovered using the transit method.
There are over 5,100 confirmed exoplanets. With thousands of other discoveries still to be confirmed, and some estimates that TESS will identify more than 10,000 candidate exoplanets, the demand for follow-up observations is greater than ever.
These are necessary to determine if uncertain candidate exoplanets are likely “false positives” because a decrease in a star’s brightness over a period of time may also be caused by another object passing in front of it.
For example, in an eclipsing binary system where two stars orbit each other, the light of one can sometimes be hidden behind the other.
It is also necessary to re-observe confirmed exoplanets using terrestrial systems so that the “orbital astronomy waves” – their path in the sky over time – remain up to date.
This is where citizen scientists come into the picture.
Observation of three gaseous exoplanets
The campaign will provide professional guidance and coordinated targets specifically focused on outer Jupiter – gas giant planets that are virtually similar to Jupiter.
One of the network’s most recent achievements is the TOI 1812.01 candidate exoplanet discovery. It comes from a multi-planet system 563 light-years from Earth made up of three gaseous planets: a planet with an Earth radius of 11 days; Earth’s radius over a period of 43 days; and planet 9-Earth outer radius (TOI 1812.01) on what was previously an unknown orbit.
Over three potential transit windows in July and August 2022, 20 amateur astronomers contributed to the project with 27 datasets in seven countries. With this they were able to confirm that TOI 1812.01 has an orbital period of 112 days.
This work, including Unistellar notes, is being prepared for manuscript formally confirming the nature of a planetary system and will be presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, France.
“Observing exoplanets such as TOI 1812.01 as they transit in front of or transit host stars is a critical component to confirm their nature as real planets and ensure our ability to study these planetary systems in the future,” says Dr. Paul Dalba, from SETI. Institute research scientist. “The specific characteristics of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit times, place it in a category in which a global citizen science coordination such as the Unistellar Network can be very effective.”
“This early success demonstrates the power of putting science directly in people’s hands; a fundamental principle of the SETI Institute, Unistellar and NASA partnership,” adds Dr. Tom Esposito, SETI Institute Research Assistant and Director of Space Science at Unistellar. “Astronomers around the world are uniting to teach humanity about new planets discovered several trillion miles away, which is simply amazing.”
Monitoring objectives will be announced regularly here.
Other citizen science programs are available through the Unistellar Network if you’re more interested in discovering NEOs to defend planets or spotting asteroids flying in front of distant stars.