New program to detect exoplanets for citizens

image: Artist’s conception of the multiple planetary system.
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Credit: Gemini Observatory. Artwork by Lynette Cook

September 19, 2022, Mountain View, California SETI and partner Unistellar are launching a new exoplanet discovery program that will engage citizen scientists around the world. Amateur astronomers, using either Unistellar’s eVscope or another telescope, will be invited to help confirm candidate exoplanets identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) by observing possible exoplanet transits from Earth.

Most of the known exoplanets have been discovered using the transit method, most notably by the Kepler mission and now TESS. A transit is when a planet passes between its star and the observer, who will see the star dimmed as the planet orbits. The demand for follow-up observations of transiting exoplanets is greater than ever. There are currently more than 5,100 confirmed exoplanets, with thousands of other discoveries confirmed. This program will focus its efforts on exo-Jupiters discovered by NASA missions.

Some estimates suggest that TESS will identify more than 10,000 candidate exoplanets. Follow-up observations are necessary for uncertain exoplanets to determine whether candidates are false positives, such as those from eclipse binaries or transits of low-mass stars. Regular re-observations by terrestrial systems are necessary for confirmed planets to keep their orbital astronomical periods updated. The potential for citizen scientists to contribute to exoplanet science is high and has exciting implications for STEM education.

Opportunities for non-professional astronomers to observe their collected data and contribute to exoplanet research or education have been largely unattainable. The high costs and high levels of technical expertise required to operate, build or operate monitoring equipment are barriers. The Unistellar Exoplanet campaign provides career guidance and coordinated goals. It can make meaningful contributions to exoplanet research (eg, optical data for observing transit times and confirming traditional and long-range exoplanets) while engaging both lay and undergraduate students in this exciting work.

One of the latest achievements of the new network is the discovery of the candidate planet TESS named TOI 1812.01. TOI 1812 is a curious multi-planetary system first discovered by TESS. It is located 563 light-years from Earth and consists of three gaseous planets: Neptune-like Earth radius 3 over 11 days, sub-Saturn-like planet Earth radius of 43 days, and exoplanet 9- a Saturn-sized planet (TOI 1812.01) over It was previously an unrestricted orbit. The presence of three gaseous planets spanning such a wide range in radius makes TOI 1812 an ideal system for understanding how giant planets form and migrate. Moreover, due to the cold temperature of the host star K2V, TOI 1812.01 receives less than twice the Earth’s saturation and may be an exciting target for future satellite searches.

However, the missing piece of the puzzle preventing further characterization is the unknown orbital period of TOI 1812.01. TESS observed two 8-hour transits of this planet separated by a large data gap, leaving a set of aliases as a possible orbital period. Scattered radial velocity data and statistical analysis highlighted the three most likely orbital periods: 71 days, 87 days, or 112 days. These 3 possibilities correspond to 3 potential transit windows in July and August 2022. The network observed each window, which required transcontinental campaigns in each case. Across the three windows, we had 27 datasets contributed by 20 astronomers in 7 countries. The network succeeded in excluding transit through the first two windows. The transit (expired) exit was discovered during the third window on August 27, 2022, confirming the orbital period of 112 days. This effort demonstrates the unique ability of the Citizen Science Network to contribute to the recovery of orbital cyclones for exoplanets of long duration and duration such as TOI 1812.01. This work, including Unistellar’s notes, is being prepared for manuscript to formally confirm the nature of the exoplanet system and will be presented at the IAC in Paris on Tuesday 20 September.

“Observing exoplanets like TOI 1812.01 as they transit in front of or transit through their host stars is a critical component to confirm their nature as real planets and ensure our ability to study these planetary systems in the future,” said Paul Dalba, SETI Institute. Research Scientist and 51 Pegasi b Fellow at the Heising-Simons Foundation. “The specific characteristics of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit times, place it in a category in which a global citizen science coordination such as the Unistellar Network can be very effective.”
“This early success demonstrates the power of putting science directly in people’s hands; a fundamental tenet of the SETI Institute, Unistellar and NASA partnership,” added Tom Esposito, SETI Institute Research Assistant and Director of Space Science at Unistellar. The union to teach humanity about new planets discovered several trillion miles away is, simply put, amazing.”

The objectives of observing exoplanets will be announced regularly over here.

Additional SETI members involved in this research include senior astronomer Frank Marchis, education specialist Daniel Belloso, and citizen science researcher Lauren Sgroe.

This research was supported by a generous donation from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The scientific data were obtained using the Unistellar Network, which is jointly managed by Unistellar and the SETI Institute.

About SETI Institute
Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a not-for-profit, interdisciplinary research and educational organization whose mission is to lead humanity’s quest to understand the origins and spread of life and intelligence in the universe and to share that knowledge with the world. Our research spans the physical and biological sciences and leverages data analytics, machine learning, and advanced signal detection techniques. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia, and government agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation.

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Rebecca MacDonald
Communications Manager
SETI Institute

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