Amateur Astronomers Discover Jupiter-Sized Exoplanet and 42 New Candidates

Amateur astronomers from Planethunters.org have discovered a Jupiter-sized planet and 42 new planet candidates, including 14 objects in the habitable zones of their stars.

Left: an artist’s impression of the view from a moon around PH2 b (Haven Giguere). Right: the star PH2, also known as KIC 12735740 (Ji Wang et al)

The newly found planet candidates in habitable zones suggest that there may be a traffic jam of all kinds of strange worlds in regions that could potentially support life. Rather than being seen directly, these objects were discovered by the astronomers looking for a telltale dip in the brightness as planets pass in front of their parent stars.

The Jupiter-sized object orbiting a Sun-like star known as KIC 12735740 has been officially confirmed as a planet after follow-up work done with the Keck telescope in Hawai’i. Named PH2 b, the planet is the second confirmed planet to be found by Planethunters.org.

“There’s an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering, with planets such as PH2 b, is far stranger,” said Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University, co-author of the report submitted to the Astrophysical Journal (arXiv.org version).

“Jupiter has several large water-rich moons – imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we’d see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats – a surprising scenario that might just be common.”

“We are seeing the emergence of a new era in the Planet Hunters project where our volunteers seem to be at least as efficient as the computer algorithms at finding planets orbiting at habitable zone distances from the host stars. Now, the hunt is not just targeting any old exoplanet – volunteers are homing in on habitable worlds,” said Planethunters lead scientist Prof Debra Fisher of Yale University.

“We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life. I can’t wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now,” added study lead author Dr Ji Wang of Yale University.

More than 40 volunteers are acknowledged in the paper for their contributions to the work. Among them is Roy Jackson, a 71-year-old retired police officer who lives in Birtley, near Gateshead.

“It is difficult to put into words, the pleasure, wonderment and perhaps even pride that I have in some small way been able to assist in the discovery of a planet. But I would like to say that the discovery makes the time spent on the search well worth the effort,” Jackson said.

“Now, when people ask me what I achieved last year I can say I have helped discover a possible new planet around a distant star! How cool is that?” said Mark Hadley, an electronics engineer from Faversham, another of the Planet Hunters.

Dr Lintott conculded: “These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers. It’s remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.”

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Bibliographic information: Ji Wang et al. 2013. Planet Hunters. V. A Confirmed Jupiter-Size Planet in the Habitable Zone and 42 Planet Candidates from the Kepler Archive Data. Submitted to ApJ; arXiv: 1301.0644