NASA Asks For Help From Citizen Scientists In Finding Planetary Nurseries
January 31, 2014

NASA ‘Disk Detective’ Crowdsources Search For Planetary Nurseries

[ Watch the Video: Help NASA Find Embryonic Planetary Systems ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

NASA unveiled its ‘Disk Detective’ initiative on Thursday, inviting members of the public to help astronomers discover embryonic planetary systems hidden among data generated by the agency’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, chief scientist for NASA Goddard's Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

The WISE mission was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. While locked in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, obtaining detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects. The mission is the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

NASA astronomers used computers to search this vast volume of data for planet-forming environments, and narrowed the field to about a half-million sources that shine brightly in infrared, suggesting they may be dust-rich disks absorbing their star's light and reradiating it as heat.

"Planets form and grow within disks of gas, dust and icy grains that surround young stars, but many details about the process still elude us," said Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"We need more examples of planet-forming habitats to better understand how planets grow and mature." But galaxies, interstellar dust clouds and asteroids also glow in infrared, confounding automated efforts to identify planetary habitats. So while there may be thousands of nascent solar systems in the WISE data, the only way to positively identify them is to visually inspect each source – an enormous challenge.

[ Watch the Video: Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats ]

Kuchner recognized that spotting these planetary nurseries is a perfect opportunity for a type of crowdsourcing known as citizen science, in which members of the public make important contributions to science and technology by collecting, analyzing and sharing data.

Kuchner arranged for NASA to partner with the Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the Internet. The result of their combined effort is Disk Detective, which incorporates images from WISE and other sky surveys in brief animations the website calls flip books.

Volunteers view a flip book and classify the object based on simple criteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. By collecting this information, astronomers will be able to assess which sources should be explored in greater detail.

"Disk Detective's simple and engaging interface allows volunteers from all over the world to participate in cutting-edge astronomy research that wouldn't even be possible without their efforts," said Laura Whyte, director of citizen science at Adler Planetarium and a founding partner of the Zooniverse collaboration.

The project aims to find two types of developing planetary environments. The first, known as a young stellar object disk, is typically less than 5 million years old, contains large quantities of gas, and often is found in or near young star clusters. For comparison, our own solar system is 4.6 billion years old.

The second type of planetary environment is known as a debris disk, and tends to be older than 5 million years, possess little or no gas, and contain belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts found in our own solar system. Vega and Fomalhaut, two of the brightest stars in the sky, host debris disks.

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