NASA’s Crowdsourced Search for Planetary Habitats

NASA Goddard announced on January 30th that it’s sponsoring a new project and website, Disk Detective, which allows people to discover “embryonic planetary systems” hidden in the data generated by NASA’s Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The data mining and analysis effort is NASA’s largest ever crowdsourcing project, and the agency says its main goal is to produce publishable scientific results.

“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

WISE was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. From a perch in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011. It took detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects, representing the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

WISE was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed, but was reactivated in September 2013, renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), and given a new mission, to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.

Developed alongside Zooniverse, a network of scientists, software developers, and educators, the project will make sifting through the astronomical data easier. From 2010 to 2011 WISE, which is locked in Earth orbit, scanned the entire sky in infrared, measuring some 745 million objects in detail. NASA is in the process of searching through this data for planets that form and grow in “dust-rich circumstellar disks,” which shine brightly in infrared wavelengths.

The problem is that other objects, such as galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids, also shine in infrared. This infrared noise makes it difficult to identify planet-forming environments – Young Stellar Object disks (gaseous and less than 5 million years old), and debris disks, which are 5 million years or older and contain little to no gas. The former are found in or near young star clusters, while the latter contains “belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts” found in our solar system.

To deal with this problem, Disk Detective takes images from WISE and other sky surveys (the James Webb Telescope will contribute data in the future) and converts them to brief animations the website calls flip books. Volunteers then classify objects according to specific but simplecriteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. Working on this cataloged image analysis, astronomers will then decide which objects deserve greater attention.

Herbig-Haro 30

Herbig-Haro 30 is the prototype of a gas-rich young stellar object disk. The dark disk spans 40 billion miles in this image, cutting the bright nebula in two and blocking the central star from direct view. Volunteers can help astronomers find more disks like this through DiskDetective.org [Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Burrows (STScI)]

For more information, you can watch the NASA | Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats video, and this Hubble Space Telescope Google hangout.

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