Log on and dis­cover a new planet

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two -

LOS AN­GE­LES (AP) — Ama­teur as­tronomer William Bianco doesn’t hud­dle over a back­yard tele­scope to hunt for undis­cov­ered plan­ets. He logs onto his com­puter.

Bianco, who was mes­mer­ized by the in­tri­ca­cies of the uni­verse as a young boy, is part of a grow­ing on­line com­mu­nity that sifts through moun­tains of data col­lected by pro­fes­sional sci­en­tists in search of other worlds.

While Bianco has yet to make a land­mark dis­cov­ery, he sa­vors the rushof­tee­teringonthe­cut­tingedge of re­search.

Never be­fore have ama­teur astronomers had so much un­fet­tered ac­cess to ce­les­tial data once avail­ableon­ly­to­sci­en­tistswith­hugete­le­scopes. In the latest fron­tier of as­tron­omy, pro­fes­sion­als are in­creas­ingly en­list­ing the aid of novices with per­sonal com­put­ers to help pore through images and data — all in pur­suit of the next great break­through.

“We’re in the golden age of as­tron­omy,”saidBianco,who­keepshis day job as a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at In­di­ana Univer­sity.

Thankstotech­nol­ogy,novice­sare ef­fec­tively turn­ing from lonely sky­watch­ers to re­search as­sis­tants. Even be­fore the rise of vir­tual as­tron­omy, ama­teurs did ev­ery­thing from track­ing as­teroids to de­tect­ing su­per­nova­ex­plo­sion­stoeye­ingnew comets.

In 1995, neo­phyte stargazer Thomas Bopp gained fame for codis­cov­er­ing­what­would­be­know­nas CometHale-Bopp.Twoyearsago,in what­was­billedas­the­first­suchfind by an ama­teur in 65 years, Jay McNeil of Ken­tucky took a pic­ture of a newneb­ula — an il­lu­mi­nated cloud of­gasand­dustl­it­by­whatis­be­lieved to be a new­born star.

Since the late 1990s, vir­tual as­tron­omy has boomed. One of the ear­li­est on­line cit­i­zen sci­en­tist projects was SETI@home, which dis­trib­uted soft­ware that cre­ated a vir­tual su­per­com­puter by har­ness­ing idle, Web-con­nected PCs to search for alien ra­dio trans­mis­sions.

While the SETI project hums in the back­ground as a screen saver, the newer ef­forts re­quire more hu­man thought.

Bian­co­be­longstoanIn­ter­net­pro­ject called Sys­temic, which boasts 750 ama­teur planet hunters. Astronomers have al­ready dis­cov­ered morethan200­plan­etsin­far-off­so­lar sys­tems us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods, yet there are likely more out there.

Par­tic­i­pants down­load soft­ware and ri­fle through data that mea­sure the tiny grav­i­ta­tional wob­ble in a star’s mo­tions in search plan­ets that or­bit stars other than our sun. Users also try to de­code sim­u­lated data of plan­e­tary sys­tems in­vented by the project man­agers — a task that will help the pro­fes­sion­als bet­ter un­der­stand real ex­tra­so­lar plan­ets.

To par­tic­i­pate, users se­lect a star — real or sim­u­lated — and ad­just other vari­ables such a planet’s mass and or­bital pe­riod by mov­ing a slider back and forth on the screen. The goal is to de­sign a plan­e­tary sys­tem that best fits the data and then pub­lish the an­swer on­line.

So far, on­line users have pin­pointed hun­dreds of po­ten­tial can­di­dates, but only about five might ac­tu­ally be real, said Sys­temic project head Greg Laughlin, an as­tronomer at the Univer- sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz.

“It’s not an aim­less game,” he said.

Al­though the Sys­temic Web site pro­vides the search tools, it doesn’t pro­mote any of the dis­cov­er­ies, Laughlin said. Ama­teurs who want top­ub­li­cizetheirfind­need­tolook­for an­other out­let, such as a sci­en­tific jour­nal to get credit.

Laughlin is no stranger to Web­based as­tron­omy. He helped start an­other project in which ama­teurs point­theirte­le­scope­sat­po­ten­tialex­tra­so­lar plan­e­tary sys­tems and look at dim­ming starlight to learn about a planet’s size and com­po­si­tion. Un­like Sys­temic, users have to buy ex­pen­sivee­quip­ment—in­clud­ingte­le­scopes and cam­eras — to par­tic­i­pate.

Be­foreIn­ter­net-basedas­tron­omy, it took a long time for novices to re­port their dis­cov­er­ies. High-speed, al­ways-on In­ter­net ac­cess has blurred the line be­tween the pro­fes­sion­als and ama­teurs, said Terry Mann, pres­i­dent of the Astro­nom­i­calLeague,made­upo­fover240U.S. ama­teur as­tron­omy clubs.

Last year, Mann signed up to an­a­lyze a repos­i­tory of on­line images of the first-ever mi­cro­scopic grains of­s­tar­dust­brought­back­toEarthby a NASA space­craft.

The work is painstak­ing. Mann and her fel­low 25,000 vol­un­teers eye hun­dreds of thou­sands of dig­i­tal images in search of mi­nus­cule car­rot-shaped trails left by the cap­ture of star dust, be­lieved to be the left­overs from stel­lar ex­plo­sions.

Mann has sub­mit­ted 40 pos­si­ble ex­am­ples of star dust in the images. If cor­rect, ama­teurs can get their names pub­lished in sci­en­tific pa­pers writ­ten by re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, which­man­ages­theS­tar­dust@home project.

“Ama­teurs can do real science. We can ac­tu­ally help,” Mann said.

Andrew West­phal, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of the Space Sci­ences Lab­o­ra­tory at Berke­ley, praised ama­teurs – it would prob­a­bly take his whole life to find all the dust sprin­klings, he said.

“It’s stun­ning how good they are. I think they’re bet­ter at this than we are,” West­phal said.

The In­ter­net has also ben­e­fited pro­fes­sional astronomers, who of­ten have to fight for scarce tele­scope time at ma­jor re­search ob­ser­va­to­ries.

Since 2001, the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion has funded a $10 mil­lion project to cre­ate a “na­tional vir­tual ob­ser­va­tory” that com­piles data from ground and space-based tele­scopes — in­clud­ing daz­zling images from the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope and X-ray data from the Chan­dra Ob­ser­va­tory. The project, which is still un­der de­vel­op­ment, is pri­mar­ily used by pro­fes­sion­als who want to go to one source to mine archival images. High school and col­lege stu­dents are in­creas­ingly tap­ping into the Web site as well, said project man­ager Robert Hanisch of the Space Tele­scope Science In­sti­tute.

As far as ama­teur as­tronomer Bianco is con­cerned, the more peo­ple teas­ing out the mys­ter­ies of the cos­mos, the bet­ter.

“It’s go­ing to take some time and col­lec­tive ef­fort to find what’s out there,” he said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.