Have you ever wished you could be an astronaut? Have you spent nights looking into a telescope, searching for distant galaxies, undiscovered planets, or aliens? Do you still? For all the citizen scientists out there, the Australian National University has a big favor to ask—it needs help finding Planet 9.
Before we talk about the search, you might be wondering what Planet 9, sometimes referred to as Planet X, is (or isn’t, as the case may be). Astronomers have long believed there’s a planet four times bigger than Earth and ten times as massive lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, but no one’s been able to spot it yet. Planet 9 is similar to dark matter—scientists have plenty of circumstantial evidence for its existence, such as the orbits of neighboring objects in the Kuiper Belt that indicate the influence of a nearby massive planet, but direct evidence has thus far remained elusive.
That’s where you come in.
The Australia National University’s Skymapper telescope is currently assembling a “digital survey of the entire southern sky.” It has amassed thousands of images which will be put online where anyone with internet access can sift through them to look for Planet 9. How exactly does one do that? By comparing photos to note changes, such as a moving speck that might be an “object of interest.”
If someone spots such a distinction, s/he indicates what seems different by clicking on the image and then the astronomers will look into it. ANU astrophysicist Brad Tucker says “it’s actually not that complicated to find Planet 9.” That may be true in theory, but there are so many pinpricks of light in these images that it’s easy to feel a bit blinded when staring at them for long periods of time. Time will tell if Tucker’s right.
Planet 9 orbit. Credit: nagualdesign
NASA has also launched a similar search asking for help looking through photos taken by WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. As powerful as Skymapper and modern technology are, researchers say that people, particularly those excited about the cosmos, are even more powerful.
It’s also possible that citizen scientists will spot other objects astronomers aren’t specifically looking for. As added incentive, Tucker says if that happens, “you could name it after your wife, brother or sister,” but not after oneself, per the “rules set by the International Astronomical Union.” An asteroid bearing the name of a family member could make for a pretty cool gift.
Artist’s conception of Planet 9. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The project will kick off on Tues, March 28th on BBC Stargazing Live. Those who are interested in searching for Planet 9 should check out Zooniverse to access the Skymapper photos. Pluto might not be a planet anymore, but here’s your chance to find the true ninth planet of the solar system!