From UCSC: “Planet hunting citizen scientists produce quick results for astronomers”

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz

April 18, 2017
Tim Stephens

In this computer animation of the four-planet system, the planet orbits are to scale and planet sizes are to scale with each other, but not with the star and the size of the orbits. (Credit: Simone Duca)

Four UCSC undergraduates worked with astronomer Ian Crossfield to develop the Exoplanet Explorers project: Nithesh Balasubramanian, Nihaal Zaveri, Yyue Yu, and Nicholas Gehlken.

The Exoplanet Explorer project led by UCSC astronomer Ian Crossfield got a big boost from a live television broadcast in Australia

Thousands of volunteer citizen scientists jumped at the opportunity to help astronomers discover new planets, yielding quick results for a team led by UC Santa Cruz astronomer Ian Crossfield. The Exoplanet Explorers project, launched in early April on Zooniverse, a popular citizen science platform, has already identified nearly 200 candidate planets, including a new four-planet system.

Chris Lintott of Zooniverse shows ‘Stargazing Live’ hosts Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro the possible planets found so far by the Exoplanet Explorers project, using gumballs to represent different types of planets.

Crossfield’s team had been working with Zooniverse for months to develop the project when they got a surprise invitation to have it featured on a live television program, ‘ABC Stargazing Live‘, to be broadcast in Australia.


The researchers quickly got the project ready to launch, uploading two large sets of data for volunteers to classify. The program, hosted by British astronomer Brian Cox and Australian television personality Julia Zemiro, was presented over three nights starting April 4. More than 10,000 users participated in the project in the first 48 hours, generating more than 2 million classifications.

“It would have taken our small team months to wade through all this data, so this is very useful for us. And we got thousands of people interested in the science of exoplanets,” said Crossfield, a Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Santa Cruz.

K2 Mission

Crossfield’s team is using K2, the continuing mission of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, to search for planets around red dwarf stars.

NASA Kepler Telescope

By measuring the brightness of stars, Kepler can detect the periodic dips in brightness that occur when an orbiting planet passes in front of a star. Participants in the Exoplanet Explorers project evaluate plots of K2 data to classify stars according to whether or not they show evidence of a planet.

According to team member Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech, the four-planet system emerged as a particularly interesting discovery for the Stargazing Live hosts to showcase on the third night of the program. The four planets orbit a sun-like host star and are all “super-Earths” (larger than Earth but smaller than ice giants like Neptune), with orbital periods shorter than 12.5 days, she said. Host Brian Cox called the results “astonishing,” and Christiansen and Crossfield are preparing a paper on their findings.

Planet statistics

The research team is interested in gathering statistics on the abundance of different types of planets orbiting different types of stars. When astronomers began discovering planets outside our own solar system a couple of decades ago, it became apparent that Earth is not a typical planet in a typical planetary system. With enough observations, astronomers can begin to make generalizations about planetary systems throughout our galaxy.

“These observations can tell us about the typical end products of the planet formation process,” Crossfield said. So far, the candidate planets identified by Exoplanet Explorers include 44 Jupiters, 72 Neptunes, 53 super-Earths, and 15 Earth-sized planets.

Crossfield worked with four UC Santa Cruz undergraduates—Nithesh Balasubramanian, Nicholas Gehlken, Yyue Yu, and Nihaal Zaveri—to develop the Exoplanet Explorers program. Other key members of the team, in addition to Christiansen, were Geert Barentsen at NASA Ames Research Center and Chris Lintott and Grant Miller at Zooniverse.

See the full article here .

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.

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UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.