When you think of space exploration, what comes to mind? You might envision Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy out on one of their epic adventures. As enjoyable as it is to watch the travels of the Starship Enterprise and its crew, that's only science fiction.
In reality, these missions are carried out by professional astronauts like the ones working for NASA. At least, until now.
If you have ever dreamed about discovering a new planet, now is your chance. NASA is asking the public to help in the search for undiscovered worlds in the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond.
How you can help NASA search for undiscovered planets
A newly created website, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, allows anyone who wants to participate in a chance to help find new planets. You do this by viewing short movies made from images that were captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. These movies highlight objects that were captured moving gradually across the sky.
NASA Researcher Marc Kuchner said, "There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored. Because there's so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed."
The entire sky was scanned by WISE between 2010 and 2011. It produced the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths that is available.
The new site uses the collected data to hunt for unknown objects in and near our own solar system. Astronomers have shown that many distant objects possess orbital features that indicate they were affected by the gravity of an, as of now, undiscovered planet they refer to as Planet Nine. If this planet exists and is as bright as predicted, it might show up in the data from WISE.
Besides new planets, you also have the chance to find more distant objects like brown dwarfs, a.k.a. failed stars, in nearby interstellar space.
The Backyard Worlds site relies on human eyes because we can easily recognize important objects that are moving while disregarding artifacts. It's a modern version of the technique used to discover Pluto in 1930.
People from all over the world can now work their way through millions of flipbooks, which are short animations that show how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Objects that get flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations.
This is a great opportunity for amateur astronomers to join in on the fun. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project.