Citizen scientists are finding new exoplanets

The Planet Hunters initiative, where volunteers trawl through light curves from Kepler, has found numerous exoplanets

Kepler 7b, left, is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter, right

Kepler 7b, left, is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter, right

Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 01:00

In recent years Nasa’s Kepler mission has uncovered a wealth of exoplanets (planets that orbit stars other than our own sun). And the details keep rolling in – recent weeks have brought news about cloud maps from exoplanet Kepler 7b, which orbits a star about 1,000 light years from Earth, and the tilted orbits of exoplanets around Kepler 56, nearly 3,000 light years away from us.

Citizen scientists have been discovering new exoplanets too, including ones that computer analysis of Kepler data appears to have missed. The Planet Hunters initiative, where volunteers trawl through light curves from Kepler, has just reported finding numerous exoplanets, including a seventh planet orbiting a star about 2,500 light years from Earth, “marking the first seven- planet candidate system from Kepler”, according to details posted on

The discovery of this compact seven-exoplanet system is an interesting development, but not a surprising one, according to astronomer Dr Niall Smith, head of research at Cork Institute of Technology and a founder member of Blackrock Castle Observatory.

“At this stage we are already getting to pretty much know that when you’ve seen one solar system, you’ve seen one solar system and there’s no ‘standard solar system’ out there,” he says.

However, he notes that it is “very cool” that the human eye picked up evidence for this seventh exoplanet and others. “What is interesting is the ability of essentially non-expert observers to pick out a trend in the data,” says Smith, who is not involved with the Planet Hunters initiative and whose research looks to improve exoplanet detection from ground-based telescopes.

“We know people are good at pattern-matching faces, for example, and even there we do better than current computer algorithms.

“It seems that such pattern-matching capability really is hard-wired into us. An interesting question is what our brains do that our algorithms don’t.”

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