Citizen Astronomers Discover 15 New Planet Candidates In The Habitable Zone
January 7, 2013

Citizen Astronomers Discover 15 New Planet Candidates In The Habitable Zone

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Volunteers affiliated with an Oxford University citizen astronomy project have discovered more than a dozen new potential planets orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars, officials from the UK-based educational institution announced on Monday.

"Volunteers from the website, part of the Oxford-led Zooniverse project, have discovered 15 new planet candidates orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars," university officials said in a statement. "Added to the 19 similar planets already discovered in habitable zones“¦ the new finds suggest that there may be a 'traffic jam' of all kinds of strange worlds in regions that could potentially support life."

In habitable zones, the temperature and pressure is such that liquid water could exist on a planet, and the citizen astronomers discovered the new planet candidates by looking for a signature reduction in brightness that occurs when a planet passes in front of their parent stars. A complete report of their findings has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal.

While none of the planets have been observed directly, one -- a planet about the same size as Jupiter, has been officially confirmed as a planet, with a 99.9-percent degree of certainty, the university said. Confirmation of the new world, which has been named "PH2 b" because it is the second planet to be discovered by members, came after follow up work by astronomers at the W.M. Keck Observatory.

"There's an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering, with planets such as PH2 b, is far stranger," Zooniverse project leader Dr. Chris Lintott, said. "Jupiter has several large water-rich moons -- imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we'd see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats -- a surprising scenario that might just be common."

"We are seeing the emergence of a new era in the Planet Hunters project where our volunteers seem to be at least as efficient as the computer algorithms at finding planets orbiting at habitable zone distances from the host stars. Now, the hunt is not just targeting any old exoplanet -- volunteers are homing in on habitable worlds," added Yale University professor and lead scientist Debra Fisher.

A total of 40 different individuals, including lead author Dr. Ji Wang, are credited on the study for their work. Wang, who like Fisher is affiliated with the Connecticut-based Ivy League school, said that they speculate that PH2 b has a rocky moon that could be suitable for life.

He added that he "can't wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments." Wang surmised that it could happen "any day now."