Science in Real Time

January 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

This past week has been busy thanks to some great media coverage for the Zooniverse, both online, on TV and at the big astronomy meeting in the USA last week (AAS in Austin, Texas).

You can read about the specific AAS science highlights on Chris’ Zooniverse blog post, and about the meeting itself from various other sources.  It features the most exciting pixel that Kevin Schawinksi has seen. Thanks to AAS, we also had a very positive write-up on the BBC News website about the Milky Way Project thanks to Eli Bressert, one of our MWP science team.

As part of the (hopefully) annual BBC Stargazing Live – three consecutive nights of live astronomy coverage on primetime UK telly – our Planet Hunters project has been getting a great deal of exposure.

Since its launch in December 2010, Planet Hunters has been very successful and has discovered planets!. It has also enthused tens of thousands of people about science and astronomy – and kept every at the Zoo very busy.

Planet Hunters uses public data from the NASA Kepler spacecraft, and this comes along in batches of ‘quarters’ of data. We were due to get access to a large chuck of several quarters of Kepler data at the beginning of the year and this coincided with the BBC Stargazing producers talking to us about ways to link in with their show. So the idea was born: tell LOTS of people to go hunt for planets just after we get a huge bundle of fresh new data – and maybe we could find a planet in real time.

I’m sure there there will soon be much analysis here at the Zooniverse after what has been our busiest few days ever. Swarms of new Planet Hunters have joined the site, analysing nearly 1,000,000 (at time of writing) stellar light curves from Kepler.

With every light curve volunteers are looking for the telltale ‘dip’ of a planet passing in front of the star. More than 100,000 people appear to have taken part – from all over the Uk and the world. They have cumulatively spent more than 2.5 years, in the past 48 hours, crunching through the numbers. Critically they use the human eye to look for the transits, which is highly complementary to the NASA Kepler team’s automated efforts.

Our sites are hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), and at Zooniverse Engineering (our Chicago HQ) the team have been on the ball, preventing the collapse of our servers and keeping the warp core on track. In fact we’ve only had a couple of minutes downtime during all this madness. This prompted the fantastic proclamation by Stuart Lynn, our resident Scot, that “she just canny do it, Captain!” when I called to see how things were. Perfect.

In our Oxford HQ, the the crew have been trying to find signs of exoplanets in all the hundreds of thousands of clicks, as they come in. Planet Hunters science team member Meg Schwamb has been over to keep an eye on progress and try to find the collection of clicks that signal the appearance of a new exoplanet in database that is growing faster than we can process it. A combination of jet lag and TV appearances have made this a heady couple of days.

So did we find any exoplanets? Well if you tune in to Stargazing Live tonight (BBC2, 8pm) then you’ll find out… in the meantime go an check out Planet Hunters.

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