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Citizen scientists discover new brown dwarf

July 17 (UPI) — Astronomers’ inventory of brown dwarfs is growing thanks to the diligent work of citizen scientists.

As part of the NASA-funded Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project, four citizen scientists helped identify a new brown dwarf, WISEA J110125.95+540052.8, which was detailed this week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The four amateur astronomers are listed as co-authors.

One of the citizen scientists is Rosa Castro. Castro is a therapist by day, but spends many nights scanning “flip books” of time-lapse space images.

Like the hundreds of other citizen scientists working on the Backyard Worlds project, Castro is looking for even the slightest anomaly among the space images — a sign that NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer infrared images may have documented the transit of a fast-moving object.

“I am not a professional. I’m just an amateur astronomer appreciating the night sky,” Castro said in a news release. “If I see something odd, I’ll admire and enjoy it.”

The project was originally crafted to aid the search for a mysterious object, a possible ninth planet, lurking beyond the orbit of Neptune.

“We realized we could do a much better job identifying Planet Nine if we opened the search to the public,” said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Along the way, we’re hoping to find thousands of interesting brown dwarfs.”

Computer algorithms do most of the searching for exoplanets, but even the best analytical models are still not all that efficient. However, scanning hundreds of thousands of images isn’t feasible for a full-time astronomer.

Enter crowd-sourcing. Citizen scientists can devote as much or as little time into scanning images as they want. When they see something peculiar, they can make a note for astronomers to check it out. The project has helped astronomers identify dozens of brown dwarf candidates.

“What’s special about this object — besides the way it was discovered — is that it’s unusually faint,” Adam Schneider, an astronomer at Arizona State University, said. “That means our citizen scientists are probing much deeper than anyone has before.”

Researchers hope the citizen scientist project will soon locate a rare group of small, cold brown dwarfs called Y dwarfs.

“They’re so faint that it takes quite a bit of work to pull them from the images, that’s where Kuchner’s project will help immensely,” said Adam Burgasser, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “Anytime you get a diverse set of people looking at the data, they’ll bring unique perspectives that can lead to unexpected discoveries.”

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