Sep 27, 2011
Our first totally online, citizen science project was launched today. It is called Agent Exoplanet and is about investigating transiting exoplanets. The 'Agent' part of the name is gives the project a secret agent theme. It might seem a little strange for an astronomy project but the key similarity is that astronomers are like detectives. Very often in science you have a small amount of information to go on to try to unlock the secrets of the Universe. In astronomy this is especially true where it is impossible to do experiments on an exploding star, a forming solar system or planet around another sun; you only have a small amount of light which is captured by a telescope and recorded on instruments like digital cameras. If you think about it this way most of astronomy research is like detective work.
Extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, are an exciting branch of astronomy which has taken off in the 20 years since the first exoplanet was discovered. Nearly 700 exoplanets are currently known about, with astronomers discovering more every day.
With Agent Exoplanet we want anyone interested in exoplanets to be able to do their own analysis of astronomical data using the same method as professional scientists, without the need for downloading data files or installing software; all the tools you need for Agent Exoplanet are available to you in your web-browser.
Agent Exoplanet takes you through analysing a set of images for an exoplanet as it passes in front of it's sun, and carefully measuring the brightness of this star to observe a small dip. You can measure as many of these images as you like because Agent Exoplanet will combine your measurements with those of other volunteers, and produce a combined result. Ideally you would measure the whole set for one exoplanet, but you can choose just to measure part of the set and either come back later and pick up where you left off or leave your data for another volunteer to complete.
At any point you can see if you have measured enough data to start the final analysis by clicking on each of the lightcurve tabs, to the right of the page. If you have not, just carry on measuring the dataset.
Finally Agent Exoplanet will show you the final lightcurve and produces a scaled cartoon of this extra-solar planetary system based on your and all other volunteer's combined measurements.
With Agent Exoplanet anyone can have the thrill of investigating the properties of exoplanets in the same way as professional scientists.
The astronomical data is taken on LCOGT telescopes specifically for Agent Exoplanet, citizen scientists being the first to analyze it. We will be adding more data sets to Agent Exoplanet continually, so there are plenty of exoplanets to choose from.