Citizen scientists comb through data from distant stars, discover five planets

Olive Hawkins
January 13, 2018

Located 620 light years away, the system contains five exoplanets, and possibly a sixth, the majority of which are super-Earths. And that is how the five exoplanets of K2-138 were found.

All five exoplanets are likely scorching hot. There's no way water would exist on the surface, as portrayed here.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how it was discovered, let's dive in and take a look at the new star system.

The system has been named K2-138, after the second phase of the Kepler mission. The star itself is a main sequence K-star, or orange dwarf, a type of star that feature masses between 0.45 and 0.8 times that of the Sun.

The alien worlds, all orbiting a Sun-like star located within the constellation Aquarius, are considered super- Earths, sizing in at two to three times larger than our own planet, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA said. We have planets of all shapes and sizes, and the distances between the orbits around the Sun vary wildly. Due to their close proximity to the star, these planets are nearly certainly uninhabitable.

These planets are orbiting in a resonance, a mathematical term for when each planet takes nearly exactly 50 percent longer to orbit the star than the next planet further in.

K2-138 is no TRAPPIST-1 - a star system containing seven Earth-sized planets, including three located within the habitable zone - but it's a cool discovery nonetheless.

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Our solar system may be a cosmic misfit, say astroboffins who've analysed systems where we've spotted exoplanets. If there was a dip in the intensity, it could indicate a possible transit across the star's face by a planet or some other object. Known as the C12 dataset, this represents a ugly amount of data for scientists to sift through. Within two days of introducing the project on television, Exoplanet Explorers received over 2 million classifications from over 10,000 citizen scientists. The team used a popular citizen-scientist platform called Zooniverse to create its own project, dubbed Exoplanet Explorers.

It was featured on a program called Stargazing Live on the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Users could then sift through actual light curves from the K2 mission and click "yes" or "no", depending on whether they thought the curve looked like a transit.

If at least 10 users looked at any particular curve, and at least nine of them (90 percent) indicated a possible transit, Christiansen and Crossfield would analyze that specific signal further. Astronomers have not yet searched through most of it for planets.

Since the discovery of four planets in this system was announced past year, Dr Christiansen has been working to shed further light on this distant planetary neighbourhood, dubbed K2-138. "But those can take a while to validate, to make sure that it really is a real planet and not a false alarm".

They also found only a very weak correlation between star mass and planet radius, which means it's probably not stellar mass that enforces planet size. A fifth planet was also discovered on the same chain, with hints of a sixth as well. According to a survey of 909 planets orbiting 355 stars, our home planetary system is a little on the dishevelled side - and others are a lot more orderly.

Yay, citizen scientists! More of this, please.

"If we are making trying to find life on a world like ours, first we need to find other worlds like Earth". The findings have also been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

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