Amateur Astronomers Could Be NASA's New Hope For Planet Hunting
September 5, 2013

Amateur Astronomers Could Be NASA’s New Hope For Planet Hunting

[ Watch the Video: Help NASA Hunt For Exoplanets ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA's Open Source Differential Photometry Code for Amateur Astronomy Research (OSCAAR) program will allow amateur astronomers to find exoplanets.

The US space agency is calling out all amateur astronomers who are seeking to find world's beyond our Solar System. People wanting to get involved who have a telescope will be able to pick up where Kepler left off after a malfunction left NASA abandoning the planet hunting space observatory earlier this year.

"From NASA's Kepler mission, we know there are potentially thousands of exoplanets or more," said Brett Morris, a research associate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead developer of the OSCAAR program. "These planet candidates were discovered by looking at the brightness of thousands of stars over time."

Planets transiting in front of their star block out a small fraction of light, so when it is viewed from Earth there is a dip in the light coming from the star.

"If we measure that star's brightness over time, it will change by up to two or three percent, which can be measured by the commercial-grade detectors that many amateur astronomers and small observatories at academic institutions already have," Morris said.

Kepler had a way better view because it did not have to deal with Earth's atmosphere. Our planet's atmospheric variability makes it tough to measure the brightness changes of a star. NASA's latest program aims to adapt to the variabilities Earth has to offer, removing changes in the star's brightness due to our planet's atmosphere.

"Our program measures the brightness change of all the stars in the telescope's field of view simultaneously, so you can pull out the change in brightness that you see from the planet-hosting star due to the transit event," Morris said.

Amateur astronomers wanting to get involved in the program need a telescope equipped with an electronic light detector, known as a charge-coupled device (CCD) and software capable of reading the output from the CCD with a computer.

"We're not saying the program will give groundbreaking results or science competitive with Kepler, unless you adapt OSCAAR for that purpose," said Morris. "But the observations can be very satisfying knowing that you're watching other planets, and we hope that OSCAAR users will be inspired to take their exoplanet studies further after they get a taste for photometry."

He said people will be detecting mostly hot-Jupiter type exoplanets around nearby stars, which are large planets with a quick orbit around their star.

"People should be able to make measurements of maybe about a dozen bright planet-hosting stars even from urban areas with heavily light-polluted skies," said Morris. "With the Kepler mission, exoplanets have become a hot topic in astronomy. More and more students are interested in doing their own observations of them, but there's a shortage of mentors who have experience doing that because it's a newer sub-field in astronomy."