Monday, December 27, 2010

Bored? Why Not Find a Planet?

Most of you have probably seen volunteer distributed computing projects like Einstein@Home or SETI@Home which use the time your home computer is idle to process data looking for gravitational waves or extra-terrestrial life, respectively.  These are both ways to get additional computing resources for projects that can use all the computing power they can get, and outreach activities that help people contribute to state-of-the-art science.  In that spirit, a collaboration including Yale, Oxford, and the Alder Planetarium is using NASA's Kepler mission to ask for even more interactive help from anyone with an Internet connection, a set of eyes, and some spare time.  The project is called and this is how it works:

After a very brief registration, you can look at actual data from one of the roughly 150,000 stars Kepler monitors and start trying to visually identify transits.  Of course the Kepler science team is also running this data through very sophisticated pattern recognition software to try to identify transits in an automated fashion, but in some ways the human brain is still a better pattern recognition system than even the best computer algorithm.  The only way human eyes can look at years of data from 150,000 stars is if you have a lot of eyeballs, so enlisting the general public seems like a very good idea.

UPDATE:  I beat the New York Times on this one.  They have an excellent article about distributed science projects via the web that you can read here.


  1. Wow! Really cool project Nick. So when you detect a bona-fide planet are they going to add you as a coauthor? :)

  2. Joseph-

    Yes! If you identify a planet that the Kepler Team missed and the Planet Hunters science team works on and identifies it as a planet, you will be asked to be a coauthor. You are only asked to coauthor, however, if you are the *first* person on the website to identify the planet. So there is some incentive to get on the website soon.

    Even though I'm a Kepler Scientist working on the non-public data, the Planet Hunters site is fun to use.

    In February 2010, the Kepler Team is releasing the first 120 days of data for these systems, which will make longer-period planets easier to find in the public data at Planet Hunters.

    It's a great way to find planets, but also to find anything else funny in the light curves.

    Keep up the great posts; I enjoy this blog.


  3. Darin,

    That's awesome! I may just have to take a look at the data then as a possible coauthorship is the best type of incentive for sure. (Although I realize its probably not the best odds. :)) Plus I might learn some new physics along the way that could come in handy later on.


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