Hunters spot potential new planets | University of Oxford
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Hunters spot potential new planets

Cath Harris

Online stargazers have reported 90 potential new planets to Oxford University's planet seekers' website.

Planethunters.org was set up by Oxford’s Department of Physics to test NASA's Kepler project which is searching for planets in the 'Goldilocks zone', the region around a star in which planets can have liquid water and are neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist.

This week NASA confirmed the discovery of the 15th planet since the project began nearly two years ago.

The Kepler telescopes detect new planets by recording tiny changes in the brightness of stars. This dimming is caused by planets crossing in front of them. Volunteers visiting planethunters.org sort through thousands of images of stars searching for examples of these dimming events (known as 'transits') which NASA’s small team of experts may have missed.

The 90 planets, less than half of which have been picked up by NASA, are now in a queue for further observation probably using the world’s largest telescopes in Hawaii.

Arfon Smith, one of the Oxford University scientists behind planethunters.org, said: 'People have turned out to be very good at identifying potential planets and the 90 we’ve had reported so far could all be worthy of being on the Kepler list.'

'Astronomy is an incredibly competitive research area and in six months’ time someone else might claim credit for seeing one of our 90 candidates. All we are saying is that we saw them first.'

The naming of new planets is less straight forward and the International Astronomical Union [IAU] has yet to rule on how that will be done. 'Given that there are going to be millions of new planets eventually it’s highly unlikely that we will have one named after us,' Arfon said.

The findings have fuelled his passion for astronomy: 'I don’t believe in God and I’ve always wanted to know how the universe works.

'I’m interested in how good a fit are humans to living elsewhere. For example, we wouldn't necessarily need four fingers and a thumb because the pinching mechanism might be all we required.

'I think there’s a very real chance that if we met life from another planet we wouldn’t recognise it as life at all.'

Dr Arfon Smith is based at Oxford University’s Department of Physics.