Exoplanets. Planets beyond our solar system, far removed from Earth’s comfortable neighborhood. Exotic. Mysterious. Dramatic. The domain of science fiction fans and UFO and SETI enthusiasts worldwide, exoplanets conjure images of wild landscapes populated by strange, alien creatures either (depending on who you talk to) hell-bent on our destruction, dedicated to our salvation, or completely indifferent to our presence.
Exoplanets have a long history of speculation, with varied results. Sixteenth-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was the first person to put forward the view that fixed stars similar to the Sun must also be orbited by planets similar to Earth. He said (rather bravely, I might add),
This space we declare to be infinite… In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.”
Bold, daring, and spectacularly ill-timed: he philosophized during the Roman Inquisition. Not known for open-mindedness, the Inquisitors burned him at the stake.
Sir Isaac Newton echoed Bruno’s ideas 200 years later in the conclusion to his revolutionary 18th-century monument to mathematics and philosophy, the Principia:
And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”
By Newton’s time, cooler heads prevailed, and he fared much better. Even so, he was still long gone before his theory was validated: Scientists discovered the first exoplanet in 1988, and as of October 25, 2011, they’d confirmed another 693. This may sound like a lot, but NASA’s March 2009 launch of the Kepler spacecraft provided scientists with a flood of data that completely overwhelmed them. Tasked with searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, Kepler discovered 1781 candidates between May 2009 and September 2011.
Faced with this incredible volume, scientists turned to the public for help via a browser-based game called, appropriately enough, Planet Hunters. Launched in December 2010, 40,000 citizen scientists have used Planet Hunters to help professional astronomers analyze light from 150,000 stars, in the hope of finding (ideally) Earth-like planets orbiting around some of them.
After a combined 60 years of man (or woman) hours later—and barely a month since gamers unlocked the structure of an HIV-like virus (see my 9/2011 post “When scientists fail, call in the gamers!”)—amateur virtual astronomers struck gold with the discovery of two officially-confirmed candidate planets. This may not seem like much to crow about, but it’s a significant achievement. First, these are citizen scientists, not professionals. And second, according to Oxford University’s Dr. Chris Lintott, one of the physicists behind Planet Hunters,
These are planets that had slipped through our fingers. They had escaped our automatic detection methods, and they’ve been rescued by the heroic efforts of the people who visited our website.”
Debra Fischer—Yale astronomer, exoplanet expert and co-leader of the Planet Hunter project—is similarly excited by the astro-gamers’ success:
This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars. As soon as I saw the Kepler data, I knew this would be a great project for citizen scientists.”
Big news, indeed, and yet another instance of science tapping the boundless creative energy of gamers. As videogames continue to evolve, and as we move beyond media hype and examine their reality—what they’re truly capable of accomplishing—we can recapture the energy spent vilifying them and direct it towards answering some of humanity’s burning questions, tackling our greatest challenges, and finding solutions to our most urgent problems.
You can read more about the gamers’ discovery here…
And you can find an abstract of the scientific paper presenting the discovery here.
Check out the Planet Hunters website here.
And to learn more about NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, follow this link.