NASA-Funded Program To Help Amateur Astronomers Discover Alien Worlds

on September 05 2013 8:04 AM
NASA program exoplanet
An artist's concept of a hot-Jupiter exoplanet transiting its star. NASA/ESA/G. Bacon

NASA, on Wednesday, announced that it will fund a new program, which will help amateur astronomers detect exoplanets, or worlds outside our solar system.

The program called Open Source Differential Photometry Code for Amateur Astronomy Research, or OSCAAR, will allow wannabe astronomers to discover alien planets by observing nearby bright stars and recording faint dips in their brightness caused by planets orbiting around them.

"From NASA's Kepler mission, we know there are potentially thousands of exoplanets or more," Brett Morris, a research associate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement. "These planet candidates were discovered by looking at the brightness of thousands of stars over time.”

According to Morris, who is also the lead developer of the OSCAAR program, certain alien planets are aligned in such a way that when they pass in front of a star, they block out just a small amount of that star's light.

“If we measure that star's brightness over time, it will change by up to two or three percent, which can be measured by the commercial-grade detectors that many amateur astronomers and small observatories at academic institutions already have,” Morris said.

According to NASA, amateur astronomers who would like to be a part of the program will require a telescope equipped with an electronic light detector, called a charge-coupled device, or CCD, and software capable of reading the output from the CCD with a computer that runs operating systems such as Windows 7 and up, Mac OS X 10.6 and higher, Ubuntu 12 and up, or a similar Linux distribution.

Morris said that OSCAAR will help people detect mainly hot-Jupiter type exoplanets around nearby stars. Because planets of this type are large, their transit is expected to be substantial enough to be detectable. In addition, hot Jupiter-like planets move quickly as they orbit close to their parent stars, so the transit will also proceed rapidly enough to be seen during an observing session on a typical night.

"We're not saying the program will give groundbreaking results or science competitive with Kepler, unless you adapt OSCAAR for that purpose," Morris said. "But the observations can be very satisfying knowing that you're watching other planets, and we hope that OSCAAR users will be inspired to take their exoplanet studies further after they get a taste for photometry."