SETI seeks amateur astronomers to find hot Jupiter-like exoplanets

Much better use of time than 'hot singles in your area'

The SETI Institute has teamed up with telescope-maker Unistellar on a citizen science campaign asking for space fans' help discovering massive hot Jupiter exoplanet candidates identified by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

"There are way too many planet candidates discovered by the NASA TESS mission. And we want to continue observing them when they are not in TESS' field of view," Franck Marchis, senior planetary astronomer at SETI told The Register.

"So this network is key to do the follow up and try to observe difficult object like long period exoplanets for which the uncertainty could be large, larger than the duration of one night on one spot."

Over 5,000 alien planets have been confirmed since the first-ever exoplanet was found 30 years ago. Before 1992, the only worlds glimpsed by scientists were objects within the Solar System. Cataloguing exoplanets opens up a whole new field of astronomy, helping scientists understand what exists in outer space and whether there might be another planet that supports intelligent life.

The vast majority of exoplanets are spotted using the transit method. Space observatories like the now-defunct Kepler telescope and TESS measure the light from distant stars and detect whenever its brightness changes.

Periodic dimming is a telltale sign that an object is orbiting around the star. Whenever planets transit or cross in front of the star, the star's luminosity temporarily decreases. By measuring the length and brightness of these events, researchers can estimate the exoplanet's orbital period, radius, and mass.

Thousands of new candidates have been detected, and TESS may identify over 10,000 more. Astronomers need to observe them more closely, and there are too many to study.

"The demand for follow-up observations of transiting exoplanets is greater than ever," the SETI Institute said in a statement.

"Regular re-observations by ground-based systems are necessary for confirmed planets to keep their orbital ephemerides updated. The potential for citizen scientist contribution to exoplanet science is high and has exciting implications for STEM education."

Together with Unistellar, a company that makes smart telescopes for amateur astronomers, the nonprofit is supporting citizen scientists to conduct follow-up observations to find exo-Jupiters.

Additional data will aid TESS in confirming whether a candidate is a real exoplanet or a false positive like an eclipsing binary star. The Unistellar Exoplanet Campaign will provide professional mentoring and curate a list of targets to hunt for.

Citizen scientists have already helped astronomers study systems like TOI 1812, a solar system located 563 light years from Earth, home to three exoplanets. The radii and orbital periods were known for two planets, except for the Saturn-sized world codenamed TOI 1812.01. A network made up of 20 astronomers from seven countries observed the exoplanet candidate and successfully confirmed its orbital period was 112 days last month. 

"Observing exoplanets like TOI 1812.01 as they cross in front of, or transit, their host stars is a crucial component of confirming their nature as genuine planets and ensuring our ability to study those planetary systems in the future," said Paul Dalba, SETI Institute research scientist and 51 Pegasi b Fellow of the Heising-Simons Foundation.

"The specific properties of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit duration, put it in a category where citizen science coordinated on a global level like the Unistellar Network can be extremely effective."

Space fans who want to get involved will ideally have a telescope to observe exoplanet transits and log the coordinates of the object and exposure times. Anyone can join the Slack channel and interact with other citizen scientists.

"This early success shows the power of putting science directly into people's hands; a core principle of this SETI Institute, Unistellar, and NASA partnership," added Tom Esposito, SETI Institute research assistant and Space Science Principal at Unistellar.

"Citizen astronomers worldwide uniting to teach humanity about new planets discovered so many trillions of miles away is, simply put, amazing." ®

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