Skip to main content

Citizen scientists discover 100 cool worlds close to Earth

Citizen scientists have helped discover nearly 100 nearby cool worlds through a NASA project called Backyard Worlds.

The public identified 95 brown dwarfs within our cosmic neighborhood. Brown dwarfs are objects between stars and planets in size, being heavier than planets but lighter than stars. Some are even cool enough that they are comparable to Earth temperatures and could host water clouds.

Brown dwarfs don’t have enough mass for nuclear fusion of hydrogen to occur as it does in a regular star. But they do show some activity, with some believed to be fusing other elements. And despite their name, brown dwarfs don’t actually appear brown — instead, they would appear to be magenta or orangey-red if seen by the human eye.

Artist's rendering of white dwarf and brown dwarf
In this artist’s rendering, the small white orb represents the white dwarf (a remnant of a long-dead sunlike star), while the purple foreground object is the newly discovered brown dwarf companion, confirmed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This faint brown dwarf was previously overlooked until being spotted by citizen scientists working with Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a NASA-funded citizen science project. NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld/Acknowledgement: William Pendrill

These recently discovered objects are important for astronomers to understand the variety of brown dwarfs that exist. Researchers previously found the coldest-ever brown dwarf, WISE 0855, in 2014, which is a cool minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. But this was a one-off finding that was considerably colder than any previously known brown dwarfs. With the new data, astronomers can see the links between this chilly object and other more common types of brown dwarf.

“These cool worlds offer the opportunity for new insights into the formation and atmospheres of planets beyond the solar system,” lead author Aaron Meisner from the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab said in a statement. “This collection of cool brown dwarfs also allows us to accurately estimate the number of free-floating worlds roaming interstellar space near the sun.”

The Backyard Worlds project has made previous discoveries as well, with a network of 100,000 volunteers identifying 1,500 nearby cold worlds. The project is ongoing so if you want to participate you can join in at the Backyard Worlds website.

“It’s exciting these could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” Meisner said. “The Backyard Worlds discoveries show that members of the public can play an important role in reshaping our scientific understanding of our solar neighborhood.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Surreal NASA video makes Earth look like another world
An aurora seen from the space station.

NASA has shared a breathtaking time-lapse video shot from the International Space Station (ISS) 268 miles above Earth.

The spectacular footage (below) features a gorgeous aurora that makes our planet look like another world.

Read more
Citizen scientist discovers a raft of ultracool binary stars
Illustration of an ultracool dwarf with a companion white dwarf. Ace citizen scientist Frank Kiwy used the Astro Data Lab science platform at NSF’s NOIRLab to discover 34 new ultracool dwarf binary systems in the Sun’s neighborhood, nearly doubling the number of such systems known.

It's not only professional astronomers who make amazing discoveries about space -- sometimes enthusiastic amateurs can make impressive scientific discoveries as well. Recently citizen scientist Frank Kiwy used publicly available data to discover 34 new ultracool dwarf binary systems located near our solar system.

“These discoveries were made by an amateur astronomer who conquered astronomical big data,” Aaron Meisner, an astronomer at NSF’s NOIRLab in a statement. “Modern astronomy archives contain an immense treasure trove of data and often harbor major discoveries just waiting to be noticed.”

Read more
Two rocky super-Earths discovered just 33 light-years away
Illustration of two newly discovered, rocky "super-Earths" that could be ideal for follow-up atmospheric observations.

Researchers using NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have discovered two rocky exoplanets in a system in our cosmic backyard, located just 33 light-years from Earth. These are some of the closest rocky planets discovered to date, orbiting around a small, cool star called HD 260655.

The two planets are of a type called a super-Earth, at 1.2 and 1.5 times the size of our planet, but they aren't habitable as they orbit close to their star and have high surface temperatures. According to NASA the nearest planet to the star, called HD 260655 b, has a surface temperature estimated at 816 degrees Fahrenheit (435 Celsius), while its companion HD 260655 c is estimated to have a temperature of 543 Fahrenheit (284 Celsius).

Read more