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Tracking Exoplanets: The SETI-Unistellar Citizen Science Program

The SETI institute and Unistellar have launched a new exoplanet detection program to encourage citizen scientists to help confirm the detection of new exoplanets by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

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Most known exoplanets have been detected by NASA’s Kepler mission and TESS using the transit method. As an exoplanet passes between its star and the observer, the star’s light appears to dim slightly. There are currently more than 5,100 confirmed exoplanets, and some estimates suggest TESS will identify more than 10,000 exoplanet candidates. Follow-up observations are essential to determine if candidates are false positives, such as those caused by eclipsing binaries or transits of low-mass stars. Regular re-observations by ground-based systems are necessary for confirmed planets to keep their orbital ephemerides updated. The potential for citizen scientist contribution to exoplanet science is high and has exciting implications for STEM education.

Animation of a theoretical exoplanet orbiting its star. The planet’s existence is inferred by the regular drop in the stars brightness as the planet passes in front of the star. Credit: NASA

Until now, there have been few opportunities for non-professional astronomers to make observations and contribute their own data for exoplanet research or education. High costs for equipment and high levels of technical expertise needed to run, build, and operate observing equipment are high barriers. The Unistellar Exoplanet Campaign overcomes these challenges by providing professional mentoring and curated exoplanet targets. With this program, amateur astronomers with Unistellar telescopes can make meaningful contributions to exoplanet research by contributing photometric data used to monitor transit times and confirm traditional and long-period exoplanets. Unistellar includes a detailed video and PDF guidebook with all the instructions needed for measuring and reporting exoplanet transits.

The light curve of the transiting exoplanet over time as recorded by TESS and participants in the citizen science program. Credit: NASA

This new campaign recently announced the confirmation of a TESS planet candidate named TOI 1812.01, one planet in a curious three-planet system about 563 light years from Earth. Two of the three planets of the system had confirmed orbital periods, but a third Saturn-sized planet had only partial data collected by TESS during its observations, so astronomers could not confirm its orbital period. As part of this program, an additional 27 data sets were contributed by 20 astronomers in 7 countries to confirm the planet’s orbital period as 112 days. This data will help astronomers understand how large planets form and migrate in their orbits around their home star. This effort showcases the unique ability of the citizen science network to contribute to the recovery of orbital ephemerides of extremely valuable long-period and long-transit-duration exoplanets like TOI 1812.01.

These results, including the Unistellar observations, were presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Paris in September and are now being prepared as a manuscript officially announcing the nature of the exoplanet system. “Observing exoplanets like TOI 1812.01 as they cross in front of, or transit, their host stars is a crucial component of confirming their nature as genuine planets and ensuring our ability to study those planetary systems in the future,” said Paul Dalba, SETI Institute research scientist and 51 Pegasi b Fellow of the Heising-Simons Foundation. “The specific properties of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit duration, put it in a category where citizen science coordinated on a global level like the Unistellar Network can be extremely effective.”

 

More information about the program is available at the Unistellar website: www.science.unistellaroptics.com

 

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About Brian Ventrudo

Brian Ventrudo is a writer, scientist, and astronomy educator. He holds a Ph.D. in engineering physics from McMaster University and an M.Sc. degree in astronomy from Western University. During a twenty-year scientific career, he developed laser systems to detect molecules found in interstellar space and planetary atmospheres, and leveraged his expertise to create laser technology for optical communications networks. Since 2008, Brian has taught astronomy to tens of thousands of stargazers through his websites OneMinuteAstronomer.com and CosmicPursuits.com.

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