Citizen scientists inspired by the television program Stargazing Live have found four rocky planets crammed together in tight orbits around a star. Many other potential planets outside the Solar System have also been detected in just 48 hours.
Recently the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired Brian Cox and a mix of journalists and professional and amateur astronomers, discussing the wonders of the skies. The show, based on similar events held in the UK, featured discussions of ways viewers could get involved. Along with advice on where to look and how to take astronomical photographs, the program promoted the opportunity to help process Kepler Space Telescope data, looking for dips in stars' brightness that indicate planets blocking some of their light.
The program led to a spike in participants on the Zooniverse platform, with the site's Facebook page announcing that within 24 hours a million classifications had been conducted, including some “very promising possible planets”. The following day Zooniverse reported confirmation of four planets orbiting the star EE-1 located 600 light-years away in Aquarius.
Zooniverse principle investigator Dr Chris Lintott told the ABC the four planets may just be the beginning for the EE-1 system. "They're all much closer to the star than even Mercury is to the Sun," he said, raising the possibility of enough planets further out to surpass Trappist-1's seven, or our own Solar System's eight.
In a week when we've discovered an atmosphere around a so-called super-Earth the discovery of just any new planets around other stars might not rate much attention, considering the thousands already known. Indeed 72 systems had previously been identified with four or more planets.
However, we have very little experience of such tight clustering of planets, particularly ones that range from 1.98 to 2.22 times the size of Earth, rather than being gas giants. Moreover, EE-1 has a mass just 10 percent less than that of the Sun, rather than being a red dwarf, so the discovery could help us understand the formation of our own.
To minimize the risk of errors, Zooinverse has data from each star classified by multiple volunteers before alerting professional astronomers. Zooinverse is seeking to contact those lucky enough to have been part of this process, so they can be listed as authors on a scientific paper announcing the discovery. While some have yet to be reached, Darwin mechanic Andrew Grey is delighted to have been among those involved. "The first night I jumped on I believe it was about until 12:30. I cataloged 1,000 on the first night,” Grey told Stargazing Live.
Simone Duca's full gif of EE-1 and its four known planets.