Help find alien worlds: Astronomers release huge dataset of nearby stars

NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
A team of astronomers led by the Carnegie Institution for Science made public on Monday an immense catalog of observations on nearby stars. The dataset is intended to be easily accessible for citizen scientists to engage in the search for exoplanets.

More than 61,000 measurements on over 1,600 stars are included in the catalog, which was complied during more than two decades by Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Observatory. Along with the dataset, the public is encouraged to download open-source software and an online tutorial to assist in analysis.

“[These] data likely contain even more planets that didn’t meet our statistical significant testing, but that more observing may reveal with time,” Paul Butler, staff scientists at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, told Digital Trends. “In that sense, these data will likely ‘keep on giving’ for a long time.”

MoreKepler finds 104 exoplanets in the largest single haul of confirmed planets

The huge catalog — the largest ever released using a method called radial velocity (RV), the slight movements some stars make in response to internal or external forces (such as the gravitational pull of an exoplanet) — was made possible thanks to a little bit of outside-of-the-box thinking. Keck’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument wasn’t initially designed to measure RV, but astronomers quickly realized it could be used for such studies.

“Although HIRES was originally designed to look at faint galaxies, my teammates had plans to use HIRES for planet hunting before it was even installed,” Jennifer Burt, an MIT postdoctoral fellow who’s involved in the project, told Digital Trends. “Which is why Steve Vogt, who designed the instrument, made sure there was an iodine cell — which is one of the methods for doing precision RV science — installed at first light.”

That’s a good thing too, since HIRES has facilitated a handful of notable exoplanet discoveries since the mid-1990s, according to Burt.

The researchers have been busy combing through the data collected by HIRES and have recently detected more than 100 potential exoplanets. In a paper that will soon be published in the Astronomical Journal, Burt and her colleagues describe the discovery of a 3.8 Earth-mass planet orbiting our fourth closest star. “[This] really drives home the point that almost all of our nearby stars likely have planets around them,” she said.

However, the researchers hope the catalog’s release will inspire citizen scientists around the world to join the hunt, because there’s simply too much data for them to effectively sift through alone.

“My hope is that this data will give people who might not deal with science in their every day lives the incentive to investigate the data analysis and fitting process,” Burt said. “I think that exoplanets are both a very tangible and very exciting area of science, and one in which we are making new discoveries almost every day. Because of that, this field is a great way to introduce the community, especially the kids in grade school and high school, to cutting edge research and show them that anyone can be a scientist!”

Emerging Tech

Harvard University has a bold new plan to make Mars livable for humans

Want to live on Mars? Harvard researchers have a bold new way to make it happen. Their plan involves covering portions of Mars with an insulating aerogel. Here's why it could work.
Emerging Tech

Could Mars’ now-barren Gale Crater lake have once supported life?

The Gale Crater is the site of an ancient lake which existed for millions of years. But even after the lake disappeared, groundwater could have remained for billions of years. Now, a team of scientists is searching for clues of life there.
Small Business

The 15 best tech jobs boast top salaries, high satisfaction, lots of openings

The bonanza of tech jobs just keeps coming. High-paying tech jobs abound at companies where people love to work. If you’re ready to make a change, this is a great time to look for something more fulfilling.   
Emerging Tech

Astronomers have spotted a moon forming around a proto-Jupiter

Astronomers have spotted a young planet with a disk of gas and dust around it which is similar to the one from which the moons of Jupiter were born. The planet PDS 70 b is in the process of forming and is located 370 light-years away.
Emerging Tech

Trippy VR demo reads your brain waves to create sleep-inducing visuals

Struggle to get to sleep? Researchers in Australia have been experimenting with ways to combine a person’s brain activity with virtual reality to create a kind of VR lullaby machine.
Emerging Tech

Elon Musk says SpaceX’s Starship can land on the moon by 2021

SpaceX boss Elon Musk said recently that he believes its Starship spacecraft can land on the moon by 2021, adding that he hopes his company can help to build a "permanently occupied lunar base" there.
Emerging Tech

Dark side of the moon: Why lunar landing conspiracies flourish online

Social media platforms seemed lovely at first, places to share dumb jokes and the minutiae of everyday life. Those sites have an underbelly, however, and have been a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Emerging Tech

Life after launch: Inside the massive effort to preserve NASA’s space artifacts

The Apollo 11 mission put a man on the moon, but NASA didn’t necessarily preserve every step of the process. Researchers are trying to rescue the history on Earth and on the moon.
Emerging Tech

Watch SpaceX’s parachute tests for its soon-to-be-manned Crew Dragon capsule

SpaceX is currently developing its Crew Dragon capsule to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Now, a new video shows the parachute systems for the capsules being tested.
Emerging Tech

A.I. cameras could help stomp out wildfires before they become disastrous

This summer marks one year since California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire season ever. Could cutting-edge technology help avoid future incidents? One startup thinks so.
Emerging Tech

How pioneering pilot Jackie Cochran helped and hurt the Women in Space Program

Before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, Jackie Cochran funded the Women in Space Program. The pioneering woman pilot never realized her dream of venturing into space.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff! Here are all the moon missions happening in the next decade

The next 10 years are poised to be the most significant in lunar history in decades. What do we have to look forward to? Check out this handy guide to the coming decade of moon missions.
Emerging Tech

From the moon to mass production: 10 pieces of modern tech indebted to Apollo

This article is part of Apollo: A Lunar Legacy, a multi-part series that explores the technological advances behind Apollo 11, their influence on modern day, and what's next for the moon. You may have heard that freeze-dried food was…

50 years later, the first camera on the moon is still collecting lunar dust

The cameras aboard Apollo 11 captured some of history's most iconic images, including shots of Earth and footprints on the lunar surface. To commemorate the first moon landing, we look back at how Hasselblad's stripped shooters came to be.