Whether Pluto is a planet or not may affect our numbering system, but NASA astronomers are pretty certain there’s another planet out there affecting the movement of distant objects in our own solar system. They’re calling it “Planet Nine” – still dissing Pluto – and alternatively calling it “Planet X”. Just one problem:
They can’t find it.
They think they know where to look for it, though. The WISE telescope, working in the infrared, scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. Finished with its work, WISE was shut down in 2011, but then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth’s orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).
NASA thinks that out of all that data gathered by WISE (and now NEOWISE), the missing planet they’re looking for might be hiding in it. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, so they know it’s out there, and they know what orbit it ought to have. What they need now are eyeballs.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9
To find the missing planet, they’re asking the public to do the tedious task of searching for moving objects in WISE images, via the visual examination of literally millions of two-frame “flipbooks”, which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. NASA has set up a web site called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, so that the public can help go through all of this visual information by hand. It turns out that humans are better at picking these things out than computers are.
Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. Any bright object that changes its location in a noticeable way is probably a moving object in our own solar system.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It’s a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago.
The search also may discover more distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space. “Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter,” said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.”
“Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA’s Explorers Program managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA.
Space exploration is at your fingertips. Just think – you could get credit for finding Planet 9.