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Astronomers are offering the general public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the chance to discover a new planet in our solar system. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has the lowdown on this big idea.
JOE PALCA: Many astronomers now think there may be a massive, undiscovered planet lurking in the far reaches of our solar system. But right now the existence of this planet is theoretical. So the hunt is on to actually capture an image of it. One of the astronomers involved is Adam Schneider of Arizona State University, although he's only recently turned to planet hunting.
ADAM SCHNEIDER: I am more of a brown dwarf person myself - brown dwarfs and low mass stars.
PALCA: Brown dwarfs are objects somewhere between a small star and a giant planet. And they have something in common with the putative planet people are looking for. They give off infrared light. And it just so happens that NASA has a space telescope called WISE that measures infrared light. And WISE has taken whole bunches of pictures of the sky.
SCHNEIDER: We have the entire sky to go through.
PALCA: Schneider says that's both good news and bad news.
SCHNEIDER: It's a bonus in that we have the whole sky, so we're not going to miss anything. But that's also why we need citizen scientists because it's just too much to look at for one scientist or even a group of scientists.
PALCA: By citizen scientist, Schneider means anyone. No special skills required. You go to a website called Backyard Worlds, sign up and start scanning the WISE telescope images.
Jacqueline Faherty is an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History. She says to spot the planet in an image, you have to find something that's shifted its position against a background of stationary stars. Now, you may be wondering, why can't a computer do this?
JACQUELINE FAHERTY: Computer algorithms are not very good, the more and more stars that get involved. The human eye helps tremendously. It's much faster. It can be very trustworthy.
PALCA: But I have to tell you, spotting those moving items isn't easy. I went to the website and tried, and I was terrible at it. Faherty told me not to feel bad.
FAHERTY: To be honest, I'm really bad at it as well. But I want people with good eyes to do it because when they're good at it, they're really good at it.
PALCA: Even if you correctly spot something moving in the images, it might not be the undiscovered planet. It could be some other faint object wandering among the stars. But Adam Schneider says you could hit the jackpot.
SCHNEIDER: Literally anyone - you, me, anyone you talk to - can log on and potentially make that discovery.
PALCA: And if you are the discoverer, you get to propose a name for the new planet. Planet Palca has a nice ring to it, don't you think?
Joe Palca, NPR News.
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