Saturday, October 29, 2016

NASA press release announces citizen scientists help discover oldest stellar nursery

So,  I have been still doing research here and there, and one of the things that I help with is classification of data for large projects needing "extra eyes" to identify things that computers miss or have difficulty spotting. From looking for Higgs bosons to spotting glitches in gravitational wave detectors, these projects are anything from a method of training the software to better identify what scientists are looking for, to other projects so phenomenally large that it would take decades to sift through the material with a small research group.
NASA/Jonathan Holden

One of these projects that I have been working on, Disk Detective, involves classifying potential planet-forming disks around certain types of stars in our galaxy. These stars have been recorded by several sky surveys, which are then compared to recent images taken by WISE to help eliminate those that don't meet Disk Detective criteria.

What is WISE? Well, WISE is an acronym for the Wide‑field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA mission to survey the whole sky in the infrared spectrum of light. With the data received from WISE, astrophysicists and astronomers are able to search for planet-forming debris disks of dust and gas similar to what we would expect our own solar system would have had in its early stage of planetary development.

The latest discoveries are the result of careful research and study that ended up revealing astounding discoveries over the past four months. Two stars have been identified as having very unusual properties that are now calling into question certain fundamental understandings regarding debris disks capable of forming planets. While HD 74389's triple star system has its own peculiarities, the latter star, AWI0005x3s, might well be the oldest planetary nursery ever found - about 45 million years old!

"But stars live for millions of years, so what's the big deal?" you might ask. The answer is, yes, debris disks are known to persist for hundreds of millions of years. However, only certain stars (called young stellar objects, or YSOs) are born in a gas-rich environment that becomes the type of debris that forms protoplanetary disks like the one around AWI0005x3s. Compare most YSO disks that seem to disappear by about 10 million years and you get a picture of why this disk is unusual for not fading away about 35 million years earlier.

And this is only the beginning! The Disk Detective project needs more "citizen scientists" to help classify the right kind of debris disks from millions of images of stars (over 2,000,000 subjects have so far been classified and that's 40% of the total). More scientific breakthroughs are out there, and citizen science is a chance for a person like me who isn't a "rocket surgeon" (yes, I'm being silly) to be a part of a scientific community, discovering strange new worlds.

(Edited for clarification.)