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SOURCE: Stuart Lynn/Adler Planetarium

Planetarium goers tinker with the Planet Hunters classification interface, also available on the website (, on which users can track the brightness of stars and identify trends that suggest at the potential existence of planets.

Citizen scientists blaze trails, help find new planets

by Fouad Egbaria
Jan 30, 2013


SOURCE: Stuart Lynn/Adler Planetarium

Adler astronomer Stuart Lynn gives a presentation during. a "Citizen Science Sunday" in the planetarium's Space Visualization Laboratory. Lynn is explaining how to use the Planet Hunters interface before the visitors move to computers to try it for themselves.


SOURCE: Fouad Egbaria/MEDILL

The Adler Planetarium is America's first planetarium, founded in1930 by Chicago businessman Max Adler.

As scientific instruments and knowledge become increasingly complicated, one might think there is no room for science executed by the so called “average citizen.” Not true.

As recently as early this month, a citizen science project called Planet Hunters announced the confirmed discovery of its second extrasolar planet. The project has also identified 42 additional planet candidates that have yet to be confirmed.

“Instead of looking at beautiful images, you’re looking at data on a page and that’s phenomenally one of our most successful projects even though it’s the most boring sort of task, sort of data to look at. But of course the payoff is that you can help us find a new planet,” said Stuart Lynn, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium.

The newly discovered planet is “Jupiter-size” and gaseous, according to a Jan. 7 post announcing the finding on the Planet Hunters blog.

The planetarium works with several academic and scientific entities on a suite of citizen science ventures called Zooniverse, including two space-related projects called Planet Hunters and Galaxy Zoo. There are currently eight active projects under the Zooniverse umbrella, which are produced, maintained and developed by its parent organization, the Citizen Science Alliance. The group is composed of a list of partners at the University of Minnesota, University of Nottingham, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Oxford and several other scientific institutions.

Zooniverse was founded in 2007 with Galaxy Zoo as its lone project. Significant interest in the project led to the formation of other similar projects. Per the Adler website, Zooniverse is “a set of projects that is aimed at engaging the public in making real contributions to scientific research.”

Anyone with a Zooniverse account can analyze data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope in order to find potentially new planets.

“The challenges in collecting data is analyzing that data,” said Lynn. “And the problem tends to be that we can get computers to do most of that hard work, but sometimes computers aren’t as reliable as we’d like them to be. People are still far better at pattern recognition than machines are.”

Astronomical discoveries are not solely the territory of scientists with many years of academic and practical experience.

In October 2012, Planet Hunters announced their discovery of the first planet known to be in a four-star system, aided by the assistance of work from volunteers Kian Jek, of San Francisco,and Robert Gagliano, of Cottonwood, Ariz. The planet, called PH1, orbits a double star, making it what is called a circumbinary system. There are also two other nearby stars held by the gravitational pull of this system.

Gagliano, 69, a retired physician, emphasized that anybody can contribute to Planet Hunters, regardless of educational background. "I've had a lifelong interest in astronomy," he said. "You do not need any special expertise to be a citizen science volunteer on Planet Hunters."

To date, he haid he has looked at about 80,000 light curves on the Planet Hunters website's classification interface.

"All you have to do is have an interest in it, you've got a computer and a high-speed Internet connection and a web browser, you can take part in it," Gagliano said.

According to Lynn, neither Jek nor Gagliano (co-authors on the paper submitted to the Astrophysics Journal) could be considered as having any germane scientific background. “For all intents and purposes, they were just interested parties,” Lynn said.

Gagliano contacted Jek when he realized they were both looking at the same type of information. "I contacted him on the website and he spotted a third transit on the same star. When that happened we knew that we had something very important, that we possibly identified a new planet," Gagliano said.

Because PH1 orbits around two stars, Gagliano said it is reminiscent of Tatooine from "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker's home planet.

In addition to Adler’s affiliation with Zooniverse, it maintains a department focused on citizen science. Every week, Adler holds “Citizen Science Sunday,” when people of all ages can explore interactive exhibit. During last Sunday’s event, an Adler tour guide sat with a child providing instruction via iPad.

The planetarium, among other things, also holds hour-long “Astronomy Conversations,” 2-3 p.m. Monday through Friday, bringing in various scientists to discuss a specific subject with museum goers. Friday, Laura Trouille, an astronomer at Adler, spoke about a number of topics, including the Big Bang, black holes, quasars and our galaxy’s eventual collision with Andromeda.

“One of the purposes I see of this hour-long talk is to take recent results that are coming out from the astronomy community and translating them so they’re relevant and interesting,” she said. Trouille also added that another purpose of the program is to contextualize what scientists do and how they live to visitors.

She has worked with the Galaxy Zoo project which uses a similar online interface as Planet Hunters. “Right now, what’s hot within Zooniverse is [Planet Hunters],” she said.

“Humans are really good at identifying patterns, much better than our best computer algorithms can do today,” Trouille said, echoing Lynn. “Naturally that’s one of our best talents.”

Farhad Zadeh, a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University, recently presented his discovery of a radio wave technique he developed that allows astronomers to identify some of the Milky Way’s darker features, undetectable in other spectra. Even as a formally trained scientist, Zadeh believes citizen scientists certainly have a role in modern science.

“Astronomy is an excellent field because some of the things that you discover, you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of background knowledge,” Zadeh added.

Zadeh also noted a limitation of citizen science. “It’s just a question of whether [citizen scientists] can follow it up. Discovering is one thing,” he said, noting that data collection and discovery are just the first steps, and communicating a discovery and figuring out how to proceed come to next. Still, the scientific scene is much more accessible to the average citizen than it once was.

“There is room even better than 100 years ago because there’s [an] incredible amount of data,” Zadeh said. “Certainly, no one can actually follow every bit of it. Amateur astronomers have a really big, big role to play. That’s why [the] Adler Planetarium plays a big role in conveying this information to the public.”