Gamers help NASA find new planets

Planet Hunters Tutorial 2 from The Zooniverse on Vimeo.

Players of the crowdsourcing game Planet Hunters have identified two possible planets outside Earth’s solar system.

The source of the images is the Boulder-built Kepler space telescope. Since its launch into space in 2009, the craft beams data back every 30 minutes from more than 150,000 stars near the Cygnus constellation.

The light curves generated by Kepler provide tantalizing data for discovering potentially habitable planets. The public image sets are crowdsourced by the 40,000 registered Planet Hunters who track and note changes in light patterns over time. The theory goes that as a planet passes in front of a star its brightness dims in relation to the size and distance of the orb.

In true OCD gamer spirit, Planet Hunters have played three million games and identified a total of 69 potential planets for the Kepler team to investigate further.

A Sept. 26 study released by Planet Hunters touts the value of citizen science as interplanetary wingman to more traditional automated computer algorithms:

While the human brain is exceptionally good at detecting patterns, it is impractical for a single individual to review each of the 150,000 light curves in every quarterly release of the Kepler database. However, crowdsourcing this task has appeal because human classifiers have a remarkable ability to recognize archetypes and to assemble groups of similar objects, while disregarding obvious glitches that can trip up computer algorithms.

For all obvious benefits of the amateur stargazer collaboration, concerns have been raised about the continued funding of the Kepler mission in a bleak budget season. As Alexis Madrigal notes in The Atlantic: “…we might give up on the quest to find out how common Earths are in the universe for want of $20 million per year. For perspective, that’s the cost of fighting a few hours of the war in Afghanistan. Feel free to fill in your preferred partisan budgetary comparison. Any way you slice it, $20 million is nothing in the scheme of the Federal budget.”

h/t EDGE Magazine