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NASA’s Volunteer ‘Disk Detectives’ Top a Million Potential Planetary Habitats

A NASA-sponsored website “Disk Detectives,” designed to crowd-source analysis of data from the agency’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, have logged one million classifications of potential debris disks and disks surrounding young stellar objects (YSO) in less than a year.

The data by citizen scientists using DiskDetective.org is likely to help provide a crucial set of targets for future planet-hunting missions.

“This is absolutely mind-boggling,” said Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the project’s principal investigator. “We’ve already broken new ground with the data and we are hugely grateful to everyone who has contributed to Disk Detective so far.”

As per the statement by NASA, Disk Detective aims to find two types of developing planetary environments. The first is known as YSO disk, which is typically less than 5 million years old, containing large quantities of gas, and often is found in or near young star clusters.

However, the second planetary habitat is known as a debris disk. It tends to be older than 5 million years, holding little or no gas, possessing belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts found in our own solar system. Two of the brightest stars in the sky, Vega and Fomalhaut, host debris disks.

Meanwhile, Kuchner recognized that searching the WISE database for dusty disks was a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing. Kuchner said he was amazed to find how invested in the project some users had become. He said volunteers had complained about seeing the same object over and over.

He added, “We thought at first it was a bug in the system but it turned out they were seeing repeats because they had already classified every single object that was online at the time.” Some 28,000 visitors around the world have participated in the project to date.

Kuchner said the project has so far netted 478 objects of interest, which the team is investigating with a variety of ground-based telescopes in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Argentina and Chile. “We now have at least 37 solid new disk candidates, and we haven’t even looked at all the new telescope data yet,” he said.

However, as per the NASA statement, Disk Detective currently includes about 278,000 WISE sources. “The team expects to wrap up the current project sometime in 2018, with a total of about 3 million classifications and perhaps 1,000 disk candidates,” said the statement.


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