NASA's Kepler Space Telescope data used to discover Multi-Planet System

Federico Mansilla
Enero 13, 2018

Thousands of citizen scientists got to work on Kepler data in 2017 when Exoplanet Explorers launched.

For the first time ever, citizen scientists have successfully discovered a new planetary system, located outside our solar system, around 620 light years away within the Aquarius constellation. Their orbits around their parent star appear to be concentric circles, unlike the elliptical ones we are familiar with in the solar system. They pored through publicly available data from K2, a follow-on to NASA's Kepler Space Telescope mission, which since 2009 has observed the sky for signs of Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars.

If at least 10 users looked at any particular curve, and at least nine of them (90 percent) indicated a possible transit, Christiansen and Crossfield would analyze that specific signal further. The five known planets are all between the size of Earth and Neptune.

The system has been named K2-138, after the second phase of the Kepler mission.

Intriguingly, the sixth planet skips two slots in that resonance chain - taking much longer to orbit the star than it should if it was simply the next planet up from number five. "So, we made a decision to look for a multi-planet system because it's very hard to get an accidental false signal of several planets". This is the first multi-planet system of exoplanets discovered entirely by crowdsourcing.

But the way the chain is configured in K2-138 is different to Trappist-1 and unique among exoplanetary neighbourhoods. They statistically validated the set of planet signals as being "extremely likely", according to Christiansen, to be signals from true planets.

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This is the only system with a chain of unbroken resonances in this configuration, and may provide clues to theorists looking to unlock the mysteries of planet formation and migration. They also found that the planets are orbiting in an interesting mathematical relationship called a resonance, in which each planet takes nearly exactly 50 percent longer to orbit the star than the next planet further in. The findings have also been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

"The clockwork-like orbital architecture of this planetary system is keenly reminiscent of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter", says Konstantin Batygin, assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar, who was not involved with the study.

"Some current theories suggest that planets form by a chaotic scattering of rock and gas and other material in the early stages of the planetary system's life. However, these theories are unlikely to result in such a closely packed, orderly system as K2-138", Christiansen said in a statement.

The Exoplanet Explorers citizen scientist project, the brainchild UC Santa Cruz astronomer Ian Crossfield and Caltech staff scientist Jessie Christiansen, began its search for new planets on crowdsourcing research platform Zooniverse.

"What's exciting is that we found this unusual system with the help of the general public".

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