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You Can Participate in Astronomy Research Projects

Finding Exoplanets.

Finding Exoplanets: The graph in this illustration shows how the light we see from a star decreases slightly when one of its planets crosses the star’s disk. Planet hunters sometimes use this transit technique to find exoplanets. Art by Karen Teramura.

You don't have to be a professional astronomer, or even own a telescope, to participate in a myriad of astronomy research projects. These days, a computer and an Internet connection are all you need.

There are three astrophysics volunteer distributed-computing projects that use the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The oldest and most famous is SETI@home (setiathome.berkeley.edu). It began in 1999 and proved that the "volunteer computing" concept—which uses unused operating power on ordinary home and office computers—is both viable and practical. SETI@home enables you to participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) by running a free program that you download. It analyzes radio telescope data in an attempt to detect radio signals that may originate from intelligent beings beyond Earth by weeding out noise from natural celestial sources and the receiver's electronics. The two other BOINC projects are Einstein@home, which searches for pulsars, and MilkyWay@home, which aims to generate anaccurate three-dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy.

Those who want to take a more active role than just lending their computer to a project should check out the Zooniverse (zooniverse.org), which claims it is the Internet's "largest, most popular and most successful citizen science project." It began in July 2007 with a single project called the Galaxy Zoo, a dataset of a million galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Scientists were hoping that members of the public would help them sort and classify the galaxies according to their shapes, a task at which the human brain is better than even the most advanced computer, though you still need a computer with an Internet connection to participate. They expected the project to take at least two years, but the response of citizen scientists was overwhelming. More than 50 million classifications from almost 150,000 people were received during the first year. With data from the SDSS galaxies sorted out, participants are now working on hundreds of thousands of galaxy images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope archive.

The enthusiastic response to the Galaxy Zoo has led to the addition of other Zooniverse projects. The Milky Way Project aims to sort and measure our galaxy. Volunteers are asked to find bubbles in infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. These bubbles are part of the life cycle of stars. The scientists involved in this project hope to learn more about how stars form and how our galaxy changes and evolves with time.

Another Zooniverse project is Planet Hunters (planethunters.org). Since being launched in December 2010, 40,000 users from around the world have been helping professional astronomers analyze the light from 150,000 stars in the hopes of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting around them. They analyze real scientific data collected by NASA's Kepler mission, which has been searching for exoplanets (planets beyond our own solar system) since its launch in March 2009.

The Planet Hunters team is a collaboration between astronomers at Yale, the University of Oxford, and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. In September, astronomers at Yale announced the discovery of the first two potential exoplanets discovered by Planet Hunters. The Kepler team had discarded the two found by Planet Hunters for various technical reasons that led them to believe they weren't promising candidates. "These [planet] candidates might have gone undetected without Planet Hunters and its citizen scientists," said Meg Schwamb, a Yale researcher and Planet Hunters co-founder. "Obviously Planet Hunters doesn't replace the analysis being done by the Kepler team. But it has proven itself to be a valuable tool in the search for other worlds."

You can watch a video of Planet Hunters co-founders Debra Fischer and Kevin Schawinski explaining the project.