NASA wants your help identifying the birthplaces of planets

Scientists know that planets form from disks of dust and gas that swirl around young stars, when clumps gradually form and gravity creates planets over millions of years. But they want to learn more about this process, so they need to find more of these protoplanetary disks for observations.

A new project from NASA aims to get the public’s help with this, by inviting them to help identify disks through a website called Disk Detective.

“We’re trying to understand how long it takes for planets to form,” astrophysicist Marc Kuchner, the Disk Detective project lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Citizen Science Officer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explained in a statement. “Tracing the evolution of these disks is the main way that we know how long planet formation takes.”

This illustration shows a young, Sun-like star encircled by its planet-forming disk of gas and dust.
This illustration shows a young, sun-like star encircled by its planet-forming disk of gas and dust. NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help in this project, you can head to the Disk Detective page on the citizen science platform Zooniverse and select Get Started. The site will show you a tutorial on how to identify a planetary disk, then ask you to select from a list of options describing the object’s shape which will help with classification.

The site has a massive dataset of 150,000 stars, so there are plenty of targets for volunteers to work through. Most of the stars in the dataset are M dwarfs, which are the most common stars in our galaxy, or brown dwarfs, which are cooler and less massive than other stars.

This system has the potential to bring real benefits to scientific research. “We have multiple citizen scientists look at each object, give their own independent opinion, and trust the wisdom of the crowd to decide what things are probably galaxies and what things are probably stars with disks around them,” said Disk Detective’s director, Steven Silverberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Other NASA citizen science projects include inviting the public to help navigate rovers around Mars, help pick a landing site on distant asteroid Bennu, and identify and map the world’s corals. The Disk Detective project has already assisted in some exciting discoveries such as the identification of the closest yet young brown dwarf disk to Earth.

“To figure out how disks evolve, we need a big sample of different kinds of disks of different ages,” Kuchner said. “NASA needs your help. Come discover these disks with us!”

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