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Exoplanet research draws public support

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Mar 25, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—The search for new worlds is not only involving scientists, but also members of the public.

People with an interest in astronomy can try to name an exoplanet, or search for one.

Uwingu, which is a new initiative to fund space research and education using private funds, recently opened a contest to name a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, which is a part of the star system that is closest to Earth.

The planet, now known as Alpha Centauri Bb, is about the same size as Earth, though it is too hot to host any form of life as we know it. The planet orbits its star just six million kilometres away, which is much closer than the distance between the sun and Mercury.

Uwingu will take suggestions between March 19 and April 15, with the planet receiving the most names being crowned the winner. Each nomination will cost £3.28 (US$4.99), with votes costing £0.65 ($0.99) each. The money will go towards Uwingu's grant programs.

The group has funded organizations such as Astronomers Without Borders and the Allen Telescope Array for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

"The many, many planets discovered across the galaxy in the past 20 years are a tribute to our natural human desire to explore beyond the horizon," stated Uwingu adviser Geoff Marcy, who is a planet hunter with the University of California at Berkeley, in an earlier press release concerning an initiative to create other exoplanet names.

"Now people all over the world can participate in these discoveries in a new way, giving identities and even personality to billions of planets in our galaxy for the first time."

The International Astronomical Union, the recognized authority for naming objects in space, currently follows a standard for exoplanets similar to one set by the Washington Multiplicity Catalog to name stars in multiple star systems. Most exoplanets are identified by a letter, with the first one receiving the letter "b", that is attached to the name of their parent star.

Uwingu is calling the future name for Alpha Centauri Bb a "public" name, which probably means it will be used informally. The IAU's name for the planet would therefore still stand in scientific literature.

Crowdsourcing from the masses is also used to perform science in exoplanet searches. Planets outside the Solar System generally reveal themselves in two ways: a dip in brightness as a planet passes in front of its parent star, or gravitational wobbles in the star as planets speed around it.

Planet Hunters, a part of citizen science website Zooniverse, has already produced science papers using the public's help. Scientists initially turned to non-professionals to enhance the chances of finding planets. Sometimes computers have difficulty finding planets far from their star, or to "see" planets in situations when a telescope observing the star moves.

"Participants help us sieve through data taken by the NASA Kepler space mission. These data consist of brightness measurements, or 'light curves', taken every thirty minutes for more than 150,000 stars," Planet Hunters stated.

"Users search for possible transit events - a brief dip in brightness that occurs when a planet passes in front of the star - with the goal of discovering a planet ... Planet Hunter participants may be better than computers at finding signals in this type of data. Because of the outstanding pattern recognition of the human brain, we hope that participants will also establish new 'families' or classifications for the light curves."