Citizen Scientists Discover Five-Planet System

This artist concept depicts a top-down view of the K2-138 system showing the orbits and relative sizes of the five known planets

This artist concept depicts a top-down view of the K2-138 system showing the orbits and relative sizes of the five known planets

The credit for the discovery of the alien planetary system goes to the over 1,000 citizen scientists across the globe, who worked on a project called Exoplanet Explorers. Exoplanet Explorers is hosted on Zooniverse, an online platform for crowdsourcing research. They are all being classified as super-Earths, weighing in at about two to three times larger than our planet.

Users could then sift through actual light curves from the K2 mission and click "yes" or "no", depending on whether they thought the curve looked like a transit.

If at least 10 users looked at any particular curve, and at least nine of them (90 percent) indicated a possible transit, Christiansen and Crossfield would analyze that specific signal further.

During the Stargazing Live series, results from more than 10,000 viewers were collected by the Exoplanet Explorers. No professional astronomer had yet looked through this dataset, called C12.

The five planets are all part of the same star system located about 620 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius.

"We wanted to find a new classification that would be exciting to announce on the final night, so we were originally combing through the planet candidates to find a planet in the habitable zone - the region around a star where liquid water could exist", said Christiansen.

To gain a better understanding of this hypothesis, Weiss and her term are taking a closer look at Jupiter-like planets in multi-planet systems. By the time he returned, Christiansen had sorted the crowdsourced data to find a star with multiple transits and discovered a star with four planets orbiting it. Three of the four planets received "yes" votes from 100 per cent of participants, while the remaining planet got "yes" votes from 92 per cent.

The planets also appear to orbit their star in concentric circles, forming a tightly packed planetary system, unlike our own elliptical, far-flung solar system. An worldwide team of scientists led by Université de Montréal astrophysicist Lauren Weiss has found that exoplanets revolving around the same star show a pattern of similar sizes and regular orbital spacing. They statistically validated the set of planet signals as being "extremely likely", according to Christiansen, to be signals from true planets.

A study describing the system has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

This is the only system with a chain of unbroken resonances in this configuration, and may provide clues to theorists looking to unlock the mysteries of planet formation and migration.

"The clockwork-like orbital architecture of this planetary system is keenly reminiscent of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter", says Konstantin Batygin, assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar, who was not involved with the study, said in a statement.

"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.

"Some current theories suggest that planets form by a chaotic scattering of rock and gas and other material in the early stages of the planetary system's life".

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