About Exoplanet Explorers

by Joseph Berry III

Zooniverse is a website in which many people can explore many different projects of many different subjects that others have created due to their interests in the subject. Exploring these projects and using them can increase your interest in certain subjects and even help out the creators’ research. The Zooniverse project I chose is called Exoplanet Explorers, where you can learn more about a process of finding other exoplanets orbiting discovered stars. This project has plenty of information and it will help increase your interest in exoplanets and the ways they are discovered.

The project finds and uses data based on the change in brightness of stars over time to determine whether or not a planet is orbiting the star. In the project, you can look at different pieces of data and graphs (known as lightcurves), and based on their content you choose whether or not that star seems like it could have a transiting planet. For example, if a lightcurve graph has multiple dips or too many points, then that graph can’t be used as solid proof that the star has an orbiting planet.

This team behind Exoplanet Explorers is trying to find exoplanets by measuring stars brightnesses overtime to gather more data about exoplanets, so they can find comparisons and contrasts from them (according to the project’s about section). If a lightcurve has one dip at “phase 0” and no more, then it’s fairly likely that the star the lightcurve is based on has a planet orbiting around it. The project is trying to find more lightcurves with this description, and this project lets you help with that, by showing you lightcurves for different stars, and letting you choose whether or not they seem similar to the description previously mentioned.

This project gives plenty of information as to what makes an accurate lightcurve and what doesn’t. The project explains how this method for finding exoplanets works, and the terms used in the method well. The project, while seeming to have little content at first glance, actually taught me plenty of new things about this subject, and made me more interested in exoplanets overall.

I think that this project is very well put together and well organized. In fact, it does so well that their volunteers have done over one million of classifications, and from these the team behind the project have discovered over 100 possible exoplanets! They have many volunteers classifying possible exoplanets every day, and they have a huge page in the about —> team section dedicated to thanking all of the volunteers, of which there are thousands of. They have plenty of content and information in this project, and I can tell that they put a lot of time and effort into this project. Exoplanet Explorers is a very useful project if you want to learn about a method of exoplanet hunting, or if you want to participate in helping the team find potential planets.


Hiding in Plain Sight

by Jack Morgan

The Zooniverse research project that I selected was Comet Hunters. Zooniverse is a website that researchers can use to crowdsource analysis of data when they have far too much data to get through on their own. Astronomers in this study were looking to for Comets in the Asteroid Belt. Very few, (four, to be exact), of these had been discovered prior to the study so these researchers were looking to find more of these types of comets, known as Main-Belt Comets, so they can study their nature and what makes them different to regular comets.

One of the reasons so few main-belt comets have been discovered is that the comet-like properties are very hard to detect and only recent, higher resolution cameras have been able to display these traits. Once Astronomers observed the comets, the started taking new photos of the asteroid belt as well as reviewing older photos of  the asteroid belt to search for the comets. Another reason that main-belt comets have been so hard to detect is because the sublimation of the ice that the comets are made of is what causes the comet’s tail, but impacts between normal asteroids in the Asteroid Belt can cause ejections of dust that look similar to the tail of a comet.

pasted image 0.pngThe above image shows a catastrophic asteroid disruption where an asteroid completely breaks apart, and as the individual pieces are are flung outward by centrifugal force, the dust from the event gives the fragments comet like tails.Image credit: Comet Hunters, NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI).


This means that even if an object in the Asteroid belt appears to have a tail, further study of the object will be needed to determine whether it is a main-belt comet or a disrupted asteroid.

By combining both new and old survey pictures, astronomers ended up with over twenty thousand images to classify. One person working forty hours a week would take over five months to classify every image. While this could be done, it wouldn’t be very practical and it’s likely that there would be mistakes/inaccuracies in the final results, so the astronomers set up a project on Zooniverse to enlist the help of the general public. Zooniverse is the world’s largest platform for people powered research, with the goal of the platform being to enable research to be conducted on a scale that would otherwise be impossible. Most of the data in the projects on Zooniverse is data that can’t be analyzed by computers, so the analysis is opened up to the public with the platform converting the flood of data in these projects into measurable results that the researchers can use to further the understanding of a particular subject.

The Comet Hunters project is still ongoing as of the time of writing, which means anyone reading this can participate. Every subject will have fifteen classification before it is considered to be completed, with the project having more than three hundred classifications so far. Once the project is complete, the objects that have been flagged as potential main-belt comets will receive a follow-up study to see if they continue to exhibit comet like properties. Until then, the researchers will wait as we, the public, continue to sift through the data and look out for more interesting objects, with the potential for any random person to discover something completely new.





Spare Time Comet Hunting

By: Iryna Blazhevych

Imagine discovering comets in our universe from the comfort of your home. Comet Hunters is one of the many projects on Zooniverse where main belt comets are identified and differentiated from asteroids. Main Belt comets were not long ago discovered in our universe. They are located in the Solar System’s asteroid belt and have traits typically assigned to comets, such as a tail. The reason this project exists, is because only ten of these main belt comets have been discovered up to date, which leads to a very limited understanding of them.

With the Zooniverse platform, anyone can help with the discovery of these main belt comets. All volunteers need to do is create a Zooniverse account and then they are all set to identify and analyze the photos of comets and asteroids given to them. Volunteers will either classify new or old photos of the asteroids. When classifying the asteroids, all volunteers need to do is look at two side by side images taken in space and decide whether the asteroids are visible in the middle of the photo. If the answer to the previous question is yes, then the volunteer must determine whether or not the asteroids have tails. With such easy steps, volunteers can get through a classification in under a minute. There is also an option in which when the volunteers are done classifying the images, they can talk to other volunteers that did the same classification. This can be a useful tool in both finding new observation in the images and debated on what the right classification is to get the most valid answer.

Screenshot (1)

The classifications that volunteers do are not in vain. With them, astronomers in the Comet Hunters team can identify and track these main belt comets. When a new potential main belt comet is chosen, it is observed with both ground and space telescopes, and determined whether or not it is a main belt comet. With this information, the origins of our Solar System can be studied, since asteroids and comets are leftover masses from the creation of the planets. It will also increase the discovery rate of main belt comets in the future. Every classification the volunteers do leads to a broader understanding of our Solar System and the objects with which we share it with.


Zooniverse. (n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/mschwamb/comet-hunters/about/research