Summer is months away, but the season’s best-known star pattern is already peeking into view in the pre-dawn sky. The Summer Triangle - marked by the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair - is well up in the east at first light.
The Kepler spacecraft has been staring at that region of sky for the last four years. The space telescope is monitoring about 150,000 stars for evidence of planets. And so far, it’s been quite a success. Mission scientists have found more than 2700 possible planets in Kepler’s observations. They’re using ground-based telescopes to confirm the discoveries.
And they’re getting help from the general public to find even more planets.
Kepler finds a planet by watching it pass in front of its parent star, causing the star’s light to dip by a tiny amount. Computers sift through the thousands of hours of observations to find these dips. But the computers can’t catch everything. So a project known as Planet Hunters is using the human eye and brain to snag what the computers missed.
Participants are shown plots of the light from target stars, and they look for the signature of a passing planet. If enough users identify a candidate planet, then scientists will try to confirm it with follow-up observations.
The project has already identified several possible planets that the computers missed, and we’ll have more about that tomorrow. In the meantime, you can hunt for planets yourself at the project’s website - planethunters.org.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.