Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Agent Exoplanet...a Not-so-Secret Agent of Astronomy

The search for planets outside our Solar System has expanded greatly over the last ten years as every week brings announcements of new planets that look more and more like our home planet.  The search has drawn in many astronomers and has guided the development of many telescopes, both on Earth and in orbit.  It's also a field of large interest to citizen scientists with a number of different projects available to participate in.  Today we look at a new one created just three weeks ago, Agent Exoplanet.

Agent Exoplanet grew out of research performed at the Los Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.  This group is set apart from other astronomy research groups by their creation of a network of telescopes at different longitudes around the Earth.  So an observation can begin from one telescope and then "handed off" to another as the object dips below the horizon.  This continuous tracking allows for uninterrupted data collection, especially valuable for transit-based planet hunting.  This measures the loss of light occuring when a planet crosses in front of a star, and can last for a few minutes to a few hours.  So having an uninterrupted data source is very important.

This is very similar to the PlanetHunters citizen science project operated by the Zooniverse team, and it appears to have learned some lessons from that effort.  Both projects evaluate potential planets by looking at light curves of stars that diminish during a transit.  Both have highly intuitive interfaces and friendly video tutorials explaining how to participate.  And both provide an important amount of scientific background to keep people interested and demonstrate the value of participation, but not too much that it scares away potential participants.    The key difference is Agent Exoplanet is based on observations of individual stars and asks users to create the light curve by tracking the star in photographs and calibrating the data collection with calibrating stars also tracked in each photo.  Most of the work is ensuring each star is perfectly tracked within the software's cross hairs; this is used to create the light-curve and establish the planet's orbit.  Users are also tracked and receive "Award Badges" based on various accomplishments.  Conversely, the PlanetHunters site just displays graphs of light intensity already created by software with users identifying potential changes in brightness.  Both are important scientifically but I found Agent Exoplanet much more user-friendly and having higher appeal to the lay-person being based on actual night-sky photographs and not data graphs.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Agent Exoplanet web site and learn about the importance of transits to the search for planets outside our Solar System.
  • Click on Mission Briefing to learn about the project and watch the video tutorial on how to participate.  The interface is pretty easy to learn and involves lining the stars in cross-hairs and ensuring the light-curves for each line-up on top of each other.  I've attached a screenshot in Image 1 below in case you are interested. 
  • Once the tutorial is complete you are almost ready to begin.  All that's left is setting up an account so you can get credit for your work.  Click on http://portal.lcogt.net/account/register/?next to provide your name, a username, your e-mail address and a password.
  • Once registered and logged in, click on Start the Mission for the stars available in this initial phase.  I recommend starting on the "Beginner" star with Corot-4B.  Line up all the stars for each timed observation until all are complete.  Next you will analyze the light curves as discussed in the tutorial, and as shown in Image 2 below.
  • That's all there is to it!   Go ahead and click away, earn the award badges, and have fun!

Image 1: Interface for lining up the target a calibration stars.
Photo Courtesy: Agent Exoplaney and Openscientist.org

Image 2: Graph of star light during transit compared to calibration stars.
Note the dip in intensity during transit.
Photo Courtesy: Agent Exoplanet and OpenScientist.org

Hopefully you enjoy this project as much as I did.  This one is just getting off the ground so I'm sure they can use all the participants and support you can give.  I suspect once this takes off there are more projects in the Los Cumbres pipeline, so watch this space for news of more citizen science opportunities in astronomy.


    1. As a citizen scientist, I just recently finished completing the activity as well. I was very fond of it, the elements of discovering an exoplanet through the use of brightness from surrounding stars were excellent. Also, there was a vast amount of exoplanets available to complete. Some contained hundreds of images for accurate information, and everything was easy to follow when selecting the target and coordinate stars. Overall, Agent Exoplanet increased my skills of identifying and classifying exoplanets within our universe.

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