Friday, January 31, 2014

Disk Detective: NASA's New Crowdsourced Search for Planetary Habitats


Have you always wanted to find your own celestial body? Now's your chance: NASA Goddard announced today that it is sponsoring a new project and website, Disk Detective, which allows people to discover "embryonic planetary systems" hidden in the data generated by NASA's Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. It's a data mining and analysis effort that  anyone can get behind.

Developed alongside Zooniverse, a network of scientists, software developers, and educators, Disk Detective is as a crowdsourcing project that will make the sifting through astronomical data a bit easier. From 2010 to 2011 WISE, which is locked in Earth orbit, scanned the entire sky in infrared, measuring some 745 million objects in detail. Working on this data, NASA is in the process of looking for planets that form and grow in "dust-rich circumstellar disks," which shine brightly in infrared wavelengths.

However, other objects such as galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids also glow in infrared. This infrared noise makes it difficult to identify planet-forming environments, which are of two kinds: Young Stellar Object disks (gaseous and less than 5 million years old), and debris disks, which are 5 million years or older and contain little to no gas. The former are found in or near young star clusters, while the latter contains "belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts" found in our solar system.

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