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Dwarf Planet Near Sun Discovered by Amateur Scientists

A new dwarf planet has been spotted near the Sun; the discovery was made by a group of volunteers, four citizen scientists. The findings are published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A brown dwarf situated at around 100 light years from the sun has been discovered by four users of a newly-launched citizen-science tool, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Scientists later confirmed the existence of the heavenly body with an infrared telescope.

Astronomers are not the only ones having the luxury of finding new worlds—not with WISE around. Through a project called Backyard Worlds, the tool was made accessible to the public this year so that volunteers would be able to assist researchers in identifying unknown heavenly bodies in our very own solar system. A senior Backyard World scientist, Jackie Faherty from the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, says that he is proud of the volunteers when he contemplated the data on the new dwarf planet.

“It was a feel-good moment for science,” says Faherty.

All that was needed for the discovery was a computer with an internet connection which allowed the Backyard Worlds volunteers to go through images captured by WISE; areas of heaven are photographed several times over, and upon comparing pictures of the same spot, one can find objects close to the Earth. This observation can be made because the objects, if they exist, will appear to “jump” in the images of the same region. Once the volunteers find any moving object as they contemplate similar images, they will flag it so that experts can look into the matter.

The four individuals include a science teacher from Tasmani who affirmed having seen a faint object moving across WISE images. Three other citizen scientists later followed suit; they were from Russia, Serbia, and the US; the 4 volunteers ended up becoming co-authors of the new paper. The research team, then, investigated further, thus identifying “Bob’s dwarf”. Faherty was given access to the Infrared Telescope Facility of NASA’s based in Hawaii, from where she confirmed the existence of the unknown brown dwarf.

Bob’s dwarf, as it was originally called, is merely a few hundred degrees warmer than Jupiter. It had not been spotted before because of its extreme faintness. Backyard Worlds scientist Jonathan Gagné explains that studying the atmospheres of brown dwarfs promises to reveal information about the weather on other planets because of their close resemblance with Jupiter.

“It’s possible that there is a cold world closer than what we believe to be the closest star to the Sun,” says Faherty. “Given enough time, I think our volunteers are going help to complete the map of our solar neighborhood.”


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