Citizen Scientists Discover a Nearby Brown Dwarf

Fagjun | Published 2017-06-03 21:05

Thanks to a new citizen science tool, citizen scientists were able to pinpoint something that professional scientists missed.

It turns out that a cold brown dwarf lies just about 111 light years away from the sun. Brown dwarfs are interesting in that they are something in between a planet and a star. They don't have enough mass for nuclear fusion, but they are also not hot enough to glow. In fact, scientists missed this particular brown dwarf because it was too faint.

This wasn't a problem for the amateur scientists, though, who probably looked at the images with fresh eyes. Six days after the launch of the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 website, there were already four different users that flagged the new brown dwarf.

Backyard Worlds

An artist's rendering of a brown dwarf
[Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Anyone with an internet connection and a computer can access the Backyard Worlds website. Once there, users can browse through numerous images taken by NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Backyard Worlds now has over 37,000 users that can flag moving objects as they flip through the images. Once users flag an object, the site's science team will investigate.

This cold brown dwarf is the first discovery for Backyard Worlds' citizen scientists. Citizen scientists are amateurs or nonprofessionals that take part in actual scientific research and investigation.

Backyard Worlds debuted on February 15 of this year. Just days later, a science teacher in Tasmania flagged a faint object moving through the images. Soon after, three users in Russia, Serbia, and the United States flagged the same object. The four volunteers who discovered the object became co-authors of the study that announced the discovery.

This brown dwarf is warmer than Jupiter. Scientists frequently compare brown dwarfs to Jupiter because brown dwarfs are similar to the gas giant. Scientists study the atmospheres of brown dwarfs to learn about what the atmospheres of other planets might be like. Thus, the discovery may benefit other studies on other worlds.

The Role of Citizen Scientists

According to astronomers, Planet 9 is the size of Neptune and lies beyond the orbit of the blue planet.
[Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Citizen science, or the participation of nonprofessionals in scientific research, is a great way to involve the public in making new discoveries and breakthroughs. It can also help scientists gain a more complete view of our solar system.

The Backyard World project can enable citizen scientists to help in the search for the mysterious Planet 9. Researchers at Caltech found evidence that there is a Neptune-sized ninth planet lurking in our solar system. Astronomers used mathematics to predict the existence of Planet 9, much like how astronomers predicted the existence of Neptune.

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