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Volunteer Astronomers

April 27, 2016

Last year, volunteers with a project known as Planet Hunters noticed something odd about the light from an otherwise ordinary star in the constellation Cygnus. Looking at observations from the Kepler space telescope, they discovered that the star’s light often flickered — sometimes dimming by almost a quarter. That meant that several objects were passing in front of the star, blocking much of its light.

Astronomers considered several explanations — from the debris from a planetary collision to giant structures built by an alien civilization. They concluded that the most likely explanation was a swarm of comets.

It’s one of the most intriguing results from a host of projects in which the general public helps astronomers study the universe. They’re all a part of Zooniverse — a project that links scientists with the public. Volunteers look at real observations to find things the pros might have missed — or didn’t have time to look for.

Tens of thousands of volunteers have worked on more than a dozen astronomy projects. They’ve looked for erupting black holes, near-Earth asteroids, and gravitational lenses. In some cases, they’ve gone through entire data sets. They scoured an entire set of images from Spitzer Space Telescope, for example, for signs of star formation.

And through Planet Hunters, they’re still sifting through the Kepler observations for signs of planets — and perhaps much more.

More about astronomy technology tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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