Do you enjoy astronomy? Do you have a bit of free time to help comb through over 200,000 images of the entire celestial sky to see if you can catch a glimpse of a theorized ninth planet? NASA may have an attractive offer for you.
The space agency has funded an initiative dubbed Backyard Worlds to recruit citizen scientists to assist them in evaluating this massive photo library and hopefully make new cosmic discoveries. Using data collected from their Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission, Backyard Worlds allows volunteers to examine images for hints of Planet 9—a world thought to be around the size of Neptune that would help explain recognized irregularities in orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt. Researchers at Caltech first presented evidence of the planet's existence in 2016.
Why doesn’t NASA just use computers? In this instance, the human eye is superior. Image software has trouble distinguishing the movements of distant stars and image artifacts from celestial objects relevant to the search.
Roughly 33,000 people have joined the effort since its launch in February and have already identified candidates for brown dwarf status—sometimes known as “failed stars” that are bigger than planets. For now, Planet 9 itself remains elusive—but perhaps not for long. A similar citizen science project in Australia using images taken by the SkyMapper telescope recently turned up four potential candidates.