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New Five-Planet Solar System Found by Citizen Scientists Using Kepler Data

13 January 2018

Their orbits around their parent star appear to be concentric circles, unlike the elliptical ones we are familiar with in the solar system. A research team led by Dr. Jesse Christiansen, from Caltech in Pasadena, carried out the latest research whose results were revealed at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting in National Harbour.

The researchers, including those at The California Institute of Technology in the United States, say the credit for this planetary discovery goes mainly to the citizen scientists about 10,000 from the around the world.

In 2013, a malfunction in one of the spacecraft's wheels forced Kepler to end its continuous observations. The users could see the actual light curves collected by the K2 mission.

This artist concept depicts a top-down view of the K2-138 system, showing the orbits and relative sizes of the five known planets. A dip in starlight indicates a possible transit, or crossing, of an object such as a planet in front of its star.

An global research team led by Université de Montréal astrophysicist Lauren Weiss discovered the pattern, which indicates that most planetary systems might have different formation histories than our own.

Thousands of citizen scientists got to work on Kepler data in 2017 when Exoplanet Explorers launched. The project was inspired by a similar effort via Zooniverse called Planet Hunters, which has enabled users to sift through and classify both Kepler and K2 data.

At first, the researchers ran a signal-detection algorithm to spot potential transit signals in the K2 data, and after that, they made those signals available for users on the Zooniverse platform. They designed a training program to first teach users what to look for in determining whether a signal is a planetary transit.

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"It is exciting, because we are getting the public excited about science, and it is really leveraging the power of the human cloud", Crossfield said.

In early April, just two weeks after the initial prototype of Exoplanet Explorers was set up on Zooniverse, it was featured in a three-day event on the ABC Australia television series Stargazing Live. "However, these theories are unlikely to result in such a closely packed, orderly system as K2-138", says Christiansen. Over 48 hours, the users made almost 2 million classifications from the available light curves.

Since then, they have named it K2-138 and determined that it has a fifth planet - and perhaps even a sixth, according to the new paper. They are all being classified as super-Earths, weighing in at about two to three times larger than our planet. They statistically validated the set of planet signals as being "extremely likely", according to Christiansen, to be signals from true planets. The five exoplanets are orbiting a far-off sun-like star called K2-138 which is situated nearly 620 light years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. They then took some additional measurements to ensure that it was indeed a single star, and not a cluster of stars. If the deciding factor for planet sizes can be identified, it may help researchers find out which stars are likely to have planets that could support life.

These planets are also in a really neat orbital configuration called a "resonance", in which each planet takes 50 per cent longer to complete a full orbit than the next planet further in.

For the first time ever, citizen scientists have successfully discovered a new planetary system, located outside our solar system, around 620 light years away within the Aquarius constellation. Citizen scientists and astronomers are now searching through the new data trove, indicating that more new exciting discoveries may be in the offing. It turns out the world is big enough that there's a lot of people who are interested in doing some amateur science. "And the human eye in many cases is very effective in separating the planetary wheat from the nonplanetary chaff", Crossfield said in a statement Thursday. Dr. Weiss is part of the California Kepler Survey team, which used Keck Observatory to gather high-resolution images of 1305 stars hosting 2025 exoplanets originally discovered by Kepler.

"We're looking forward to more discoveries in the near future", Crossfield says.

New Five-Planet Solar System Found by Citizen Scientists Using Kepler Data