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In January 2016, Professor Mike Brown, the California Institute of Technology researcher who demoted Pluto to dwarf status, reported that he and some colleagues had discovered evidence of a ninth planet in our solar system. Dubbed Planet X, the gaseous giant believed to be two to three times the size of Earth, purportedly has a highly elliptical orbit and takes over 20,000 earth years to revolve around the sun. Though exciting, the find was based on computer simulations, which means that no one has ever seen this mysterious planet.
Now, astronomers are asking for help from citizen scientists. They want anyone who is interested to carefully examine the millions of images of the sky captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope and try to find Planet X. The search requires human eyes because technology is unable to discern between a planet and variable stars whose brightness fluctuates, or optical ghosts – the blurry blobs of lights scattered inside WISE’s instruments. Arizona State University astronomer Adam Schneider decided to ask the public for assistance because scouring the entire sky is “too much to look at for one scientist or even a group of scientists."
To view the images, budding astronomers have to first sign up at Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. They will then be presented with four pictures of the same area of the sky taken at different times by the WISE telescope. The experts say that because the stars are so far away, they will appear to be in the same location in every image. However, planets, low mass stars, and brown dwarfs — balls of gas too big to be called planets but too small to be called stars — are much closer, and therefore, will show movement.
When a citizen scientist locates a celestial object that appears to have moved, all he or she has to do is flag it online so that professional astronomers can take a closer look. Should their find lead to the discovery of Planet X, or even a new asteroid, failed star, or dwarf planet, their name will be mentioned in the research publication about the project!
Though finding an unknown celestial object is no easy task, especially for novices, the astronomers say it can be done with hard work and persistence. That was after all, how American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Given that it was before the Internet age, looking for it was probably much more tedious than finding Planet X promises to be.
Resources: npr.org, nasa.gov,zoouniverse,org