NASA, UC Berkeley recruit public to help find 9th planet

Emily Zhong/Staff

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NASA has partnered with UC Berkeley to expand its search for the ninth planet, and together they are offering the public the opportunity to help find it.

There has been speculation about the possibility of a ninth planet in the solar system since 2014, when astronomers Chadwick Trujillo and Scott Sheppard noticed that the orbits of some objects in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of icy objects beyond Neptune’s orbit, aligned in a particular way, as if there were another object “perturbing” those Kuiper Belt objects, according to campus astronomy adjunct professor Paul Kalas.

Astronomers believe this object could be another planet, but it has been difficult to verify this planet’s existence as the proof is “strong but indirect,” said Raymond Jeanloz, campus professor of earth and planetary science.

(The planet is) so big that it’s actually pretty faint,” said campus astronomy lecturer Gaspard Duchêne. “The second biggest problem is that we don’t have a very precise sense of where it is.”

Astronomers could theoretically aim a telescope in the planet’s general direction and hope for the best, but the issue with this approach, according to UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Aaron Meisner who is involved in the collaboration with NASA — is that the new planet is so much farther from the sun’s reflected rays than the known planets in our solar system and is therefore much fainter, especially when viewed in visible light.

To combat this issue, NASA launched a project Wednesday called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. The online program utilizes five years’ worth of images from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE telescope, which uses infrared wavelengths to detect objects in space.

Backyard Worlds began when Jackie Faherty, an astronomer for the American Museum of Natural History, approached NASA astronomer Marc Kuchner with the idea of analyzing moving objects in WISE images. Faherty, Kuchner and Meisner, who had just developed an efficient way of presenting data from the WISE telescope, decided to use citizen-scientists to sift through the thousands of WISE images.

Citizen-scientists sift through sets of four WISE images taken over a period of five years and attempt to identify moving objects. Stars — which are much farther away than anything in our solar system — appear to be immobile, while closer objects such as brown dwarfs or potential planets appear to move through the images.

According to Duchêne, utilizing a citizen-science approach for this project is beneficial as it allows astronomers to efficiently sift through the data.

“It’s like what paleontologists do. When you look at the ground, you see dirt and rocks, but a trained paleontologist can reach down and pick up the one bone among the many rocks,” Kalas said. “There is no software that can do what the paleontologist does, and therefore the human eye is utilized instead.”

Backyard Worlds has already garnered an immense amount of public interest. Since its launch, the project has accumulated more than 17,000 volunteers and 1.2 million classifications.

“The enthusiasm of people to participate … (has) exceeded my wildest expectations,” Kuchner said.

Dan Werthimer, chief scientist for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, said even if the public is unsuccessful in locating Planet 9, the collaboration is a great way to increase interest in the sciences.

“It’s energizing and inspiring to work with citizen-scientists like this,” Kuchner said. “I’d like to share that feeling of exhilaration with my other professional colleagues, and I hope that more future science and NASA projects will be done through citizen-science because of our efforts.”

Contact Amber Tang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.