Hunt For Planet Nine: NASA Wants Your Help Finding This Mysterious Planet
Your childhood dream of becoming an astronomer may finally come true.
On Feb. 15, NASA and the University of California, Berkeley launched a new website that allows anyone to help search for cosmic objects located beyond the orbit of Neptune, the farthest planet from Earth.
Known as Backyard Worlds: Planet Nine, the website contains several images, which were captured by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission years ago, that have been turned into flipbook movies.
NASA wants the public to hunt for the mysterious Planet Nine, which scientists postulate might be the ninth planet of the solar system. The space agency believes releasing the images to the public will help narrow down the search for Planet Nine.
"There are too many images for us to search through by ourselves," NASA said.
Planet Nine: Mysterious And Elusive
Astronomers have long considered the existence of unknown planets beyond Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto, but there has been no evidence to support this, until last year.
In early 2016, the alleged discovery of an elusive planet just beyond Neptune caused a buzz among scientists and space nerds alike. Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, astronomers from California Institute of Technology, found indirect evidence of the existence of the still-unseen planet.
Since then, different theories that attempted to explain this mysterious trans-Neptunian object have surfaced.
According to Brown and Batygin's calculations, Planet Nine would be as big as Neptune and 10 times bigger than Earth, but its distance would be up to a thousand times farther from the sun. This planet, which might orbit the sun once every 15,000 years, would be so faint that it evades discovery.
Another theory is that Planet Nine might actually be a rogue planet caught by the solar system. In January this year, a study by New Mexico State University suggested that the planet might have been snatched by the sun's gravitational pull. It might be a rogue planet because it is not bound to any host star.
Infrared images from WISE cover the entire sky about six times over, allowing researchers to search for faint, glowing objects. Physicist Aaron Meisner, an expert at analyzing images captured by WISE, has come up with a way to use computers to search for these objects, but he said such automated searches will not work in some regions of the sky.
Because of this, Meisner agreed when NASA scientist Mark Kuchner suggested asking the public to eyeball the WISE images.
As of writing, the existence of Planet Nine is still under debate. Meisner said it's likely that volunteers will detect brown dwarfs beyond Neptune. In fact, Planet Nine would appear blue in time-lapse animations, while brown dwarfs will appear red.
Still, Meisner, Kuchner, and the rest of the team are ecstatic over the project. They believe it could potentially uncover discoveries that appear once every century.
"It's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist," added Meisner.