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Science & Technology

Volunteers And Amateurs Named Credited In NASA's Latest Discoveries

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This month, NASA announced the discovery of two new planets far beyond our solar system, exotic worlds orbiting a star that's similar to our own sun but bigger and brighter and about 352 light years away. The find is published online in the Royal Astronomical Society, where the names of volunteers and amateurs are credited as co-authors. Cesar Rubio is a machinist in Pomona, Calif. He's on the list of contributors because he and his 7-year-old son....

MIGUEL RUBIO: My name is Miguel. I am in second grade.

FADEL: ...Are members of an army of volunteer data investigators and Planet Hunters for whom science is a passionate pastime.

CESAR RUBIO: I started Planet Hunters when he was about the age of 2. But once he started showing interest in space and science, I decided to share the Planet Hunters website with him, you know, just to nurture his curiosity in science in general.

LAURA TROUILLE: Hi. I'm Laura Trouille. I'm the vice president of science engagement and visualization at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and also co-lead for the Zooniverse platform. Planet Hunters is one project among currently over 80 active different projects on Zooniverse. And what we're doing is taking advantage of the power of the crowd to help researchers unlock these huge datasets.

RUBIO: They show us light curves from each of the stars that are being observed by the test satellite. So we go through each of the graphics, and we search for dips in the light curve. Once we identify them, we highlight them. Then the scientists go through the data and pick out the best candidates for follow-up observations.

FADEL: Through this NASA-funded project, more than 29,000 volunteers are meticulously mining telescope data from TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and sometimes striking gold, like those two faraway planets.

RUBIO: Yeah, it isn't every day that you could say you helped discover a planet. So, you know, it's exciting, and it really piqued my son's interest even more so to see, you know, actually how they did it.

MIGUEL: I like learning about space because there's lots of different things in space and lots of different planets and other things that people discover in space.

FADEL: Many of these volunteers have turned a time of isolation and loss into a chance to contribute.

TROUILLE: So in the spring of 2020, we saw this huge increase - 10 times the usual participation rates. As an example, just last week, we had 100,000 people contribute millions of classifications across the Zooniverse projects. That's the equivalent of 20 years of full-time research from the general public in just one week. It's - that's the power of the crowd.

FADEL: And Trouille tells us it's about more than astronomy.

TROUILLE: There's also projects where you're transcribing handwritten historical documents. You're tagging penguins. You're marking the structures of cells for cancer research. And it's a task that the public is really good at. We have 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds who can participate. And especially having so many eyes on the data, you can find the unusual and the weird and have those serendipitous discoveries, like these new set of planets that were found.

FADEL: For Cesar Rubio, it's also a chance to inspire his son.

RUBIO: Kind of explore everything that's out there, see what he likes. You know, encourage that, encourage his education.

FADEL: Inspiring the world as well with the newfound knowledge about the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS AND LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "THE PRINCESS APPEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.