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Citizen Planet Hunters Help Scientists Locate Distant Worlds

Kepler project scientists join forces with a crowdsourcing research website and quickly bag two new exoplanets.

First proteins, now planets. Regular people with regular jobs are getting a chance to chip away at scientific puzzles and contribute to discoveries, in what's turning out to be a big help for scientists, and an intriguing distraction for science geeks outside of academia. Last week, video game players using the science puzzle site Foldit solved an AIDS protein puzzle that had long stumped scientists. This week, astronomers are announcing the first results of a crowdsourced galactic treasure hunt, in which curious non-scientists helped suss out two new possible planets outside our solar system.

This Planet Hunters project, with 400,000 users worldwide, supplements the work of scientists from the Kepler project, who are looking at light patterns of 150,000 stars for telltale signs of far-away rocky worlds crossing in their path.

The data from the Kepler Mission were released to the public in December, 2010, and the two exoplanets were flagged within the next month. The astronomers described the two new planet potentials—the first to be found by the public—in a new study that describes how crowdsourcing data from the Kepler Mission is a valuable tool in the hunt for exoplanets. (Anyone who contributed to the project and chose to have their name released is publicly acknowledged here).

"Scientists on the Kepler team obtained the data, but the public helped finance the project with their tax dollars," Debra Fischer, a Yale University astronomer and founder of the Planet Hunters project, said in a news release. "It's only right that this data has been pushed back into the public domain, not just as scientifically digested results but in a form where the public can actively participate in the hunt."

Planet Hunters launched in 2010, a collaboration between the exoplanets program at Yale and Zooniverse, the biggest citizen science project on the Internet. Zooniverse, the mother website of which Planet Hunters is a part, first launched in July 2007, with the Galaxy Zoo project. At that time, it asked for participants to help scientists sort through data of a million galaxies, and help classify them. That first project was enormously successful. Within 24 hours of the project's launch, the Galaxy Zoo 1 was flooded with 70,000 classifications every hour—very useful to the scientists who often need to record multiple independent instances of the same observation before it can be taken seriously.

Using the data that they were getting, the Galaxy Zoo team showed that getting observations from regular contributors to the Galaxy Zoo was as reliable as putting scientists to work. They've since expanded the number of projects on their website, and started asking their participants to work on harder problems.

Today, Zooniverse is looking for volunteers to transcribe ancient Egyptian papyri, keep a watch out for solar storms, and even help measure the Milky Way. And, of course, Planet Hunters is always looking for people to help hunt for new worlds.

[Image: Flickr user jasminejennyjen]

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow on Twitter, Google+.