Looking for a new hobby to kill the COVID-19 blues? Join NASA's Planet Patrol to hunt for alien worlds

You, over there, rustle up a warp drive while we're finding a new galactic pad

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Video If you’re tired of sitting in your PJs in front of the computer screen all day indoors, and need a new purpose to get you through the COVID-19 virus pandemic, consider helping NASA look for previously unseen exoplanets.

The US space boffinry nerve center on Wednesday launched Planet Patrol – no, really, Planet Patrol – a project calling upon us astronomy geeks to flick through grainy images that may be harboring alien worlds that have yet to be discovered.

Where did these pictures come from? We'll explain. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in 2018, has snapped hundreds of thousands images of the night sky using its four cameras in the hopes of finding exoplanets. That's too much data for professional astronomers to pore over, and NASA doesn’t trust computer-vision algorithms to do all the work, so they’ve decided to look to the public for help.

“Automated methods of processing TESS data sometimes fail to catch imposters that look like exoplanets,” said project leader Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the SETI Institute. “The human eye is extremely good at spotting such imposters, and we need citizen scientists to help us distinguish between the look-alikes and genuine planets.”

Here's some more background information to the web-based project:

Youtube Video

Your role in Planet Patrol is pretty straightforward, according to NASA:

On the new website, participants will help Kostov and his team sift through TESS images of potential planets by answering a set of questions for each – like whether it contains multiple bright sources or if it resembles stray light rather than light from a star. These questions help the researchers narrow down the list of possible planets for further follow-up study.

If you do manage to find an instance of something changing brightness and position, it may be the characteristic dip in a star’s light when a planet passes in front of its sun during its orbit. In other words, you may have spotted an exoplanet.

A similar scheme called Planet Hunters TESS, run by the University of Oxford, led to a graduate student finding a binary-star planet at the start of the year.

“Planet Hunters TESS asks volunteers to look at light curves, which are graphs of stars’ brightness over time,” Marc Kuchner, the citizen science officer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, noted. “Planet Patrol asks them to look at the TESS image directly, although we plan to also include light curves for those images in the future.”

You can get cracking right here. ®

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