A new exoplanet detection program for citizen scientists

The SETI Institute and its partner Unistellar have launched a new exoplanet detection program for citizen scientists around the world.

Known as the “Unistellar Exoplanet Campaign”, amateur astronomers will be able to help confirm exoplanets – a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system – identified by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) from the Nasa.

They will do this by observing possible exoplanet transits that occur when a planet passes between its star and the observer, resulting in a temporary dimming of the star that can be recorded by ground-based telescopes. Most known exoplanets have been detected by the transit method.

There are over 5,100 confirmed exoplanets. With thousands more detections yet to be confirmed and some estimates suggesting that TESS will identify more than 10,000 exoplanet candidates, the demand for follow-up observations is greater than ever.

These are essential in determining whether unconfirmed exoplanet candidates are potentially “false positives” because a star’s dip in brightness over a period of time can also be caused by another object passing in front of it.

For example, in an eclipsing binary system where two stars orbit each other, the light from one can sometimes be hidden behind the other.

There is also a need to re-observe confirmed exoplanets using ground-based systems so that their “orbital ephemerides” – their trajectory across the sky over time – can stay up to date.

This is where citizen scientists come in.

Observation of three gaseous exoplanets

The campaign will provide professional mentorship and organized targets focusing specifically on exo-Jupiters – gas giant planets that are physically similar to Jupiter.

One of the most recent achievements of the network is the detection of the candidate exoplanet TOI 1812.01. It is from a multiplanetary system 563 light-years from Earth that consists of three gaseous planets: a planet with 3 Earth radii in an 11-day orbit; a radius of 5 Earths in a 43-day orbit; and an outer planet of 9 Earth radii (TOI 1812.01) in what was previously an unknown orbit.

Over three possible transit windows in July and August 2022, 27 datasets were contributed to the project by 20 amateur astronomers from seven countries. With this, they were able to confirm that TOI 1812.01 has an orbital period of 112 days.

This work, including the Unistellar observations, is being prepared for a manuscript to officially confirm the nature of the planetary system and will be presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, France.

“Observing exoplanets like TOI 1812.01 as they pass through or transit through their host stars is a crucial part of confirming their nature as genuine planets and ensuring our ability to study these planetary systems in the future,” says Dr. Paul Dalba, SETI Institute researcher. “The specific properties of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit time, place it in a category where globally coordinated citizen science like the Unistellar Network can be extremely effective.”

“This early success shows the power of putting science directly into people’s hands; a fundamental tenet of this partnership between the SETI Institute, Unistellar and NASA,” adds Dr. Tom Esposito, SETI Institute Research Assistant and Director of Space Science at Unistellar. “Citizen astronomers around the world, coming together to teach humanity about new planets being discovered trillions of miles away, is nothing short of amazing.”

Observation targets will be regularly announced there.

Other citizen science programs are available through the Unistellar network if you are more interested in detecting near-Earth objects for planetary defense or detecting asteroids flying past distant stars.

Ryan H. Bowman