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Citizen scientists discover new planet hidden in Kepler data

Photo Credit: CC0 Public Domain
by TR Pakistan

A group of citizen scientists have discovered a planet 226 lightyears from Earth using data from NASA’s Kepler telescope. The planet is roughly twice the size of Earth and is located in the stellar system K2-288, which is found in the Taurus constellation. Named K2-288Bb, it is not clear as yet whether this new world is rocky like Earth or gas-rich like Neptune. Its size is also rare among planets beyond our solar system.

“It’s a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon,” said Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student and lead author of the paper describing the planet published in Astronomical Journal.

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The planet orbits around a star about one-third the size and mass of the sun. One revolution takes 31.3 days. Furthermore, it’s distance from this star could allow for the presence of liquid water.

This discovery was the result of a study which began in 2017, when Feinstein and undergraduate student Makennah Bristow began searching Kepler data for evidence of transits — the regular dimming of a star as an orbiting planet moves across the star’s face — in K2-288. The team noted two likely planetary transits, but the discovery of a planetary candidate cannot be confirmed without three documented transits.

However, this third detection was eventually discovered to be hidden within scrubbed observations and was spotted after all the data from Kepler’s fourth campaign was uploaded on Exoplanet Explorers, an online initiative for amateur astronomers.

“We eventually re-ran all data from the early campaigns through the modified software and then re-ran the planet search to get a list of candidates, but these candidates were never fully visually inspected,” explained Schlieder. “It took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it,” she added.