Since the 1990s, astronomers have identified and characterized thousands of planets orbiting other stars. The DIY Planet Search is a project of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian that allows members of the general public to get involved in the exoplanet hunt. Participants control telescopes in the CfA’s MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network through their web browsers, using them to locate potential exoplanets without having to travel to remote locations or buy expensive equipment.
An artistic conception of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b.
Credit: Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis, SETI Institute
Looking for Exoplanets From Your Home
When a planet passes in front of its host star, it blocks a small amount of the star’s light. Detecting these so-called transits is largely a matter of patience, pointing a telescope at the star to catch the dip in starlight when it happens. This kind of task is easily performed by automatic robotic telescopes, which don’t require an operator.
That’s the basis for the DIY Planet Search. The MicroObservatory telescopes, located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) in Arizona, are designed to be controlled remotely through a simple web browser interface from anywhere in the world. DIY Planet Search participants sign up through the website, learn how to control the telescopes, then use them to measure exoplanet transits. The data they collect is shared through the network. The website also helps users describe their observations to understand what kind of planets they see, and how they fit into the emerging picture of exoplanet systems in our galaxy.