NASA wants you — to find a missing planet

Want to work for NASA from the comforts of your couch? The space agency is looking to fulfill an amateur astronomer's dream — credit for the discovery of a new planet.

NASA is looking for help to find the mysterious and as-yet undiscovered Planet 9, which astronomers think may be the most distant planet in our solar system.

A new website — Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 — lets people comb through footage captured by the agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission a few years ago.

The footage shows objects gradually moving across the sky. "There are too many images for us to search through by ourselves," NASA said.

In this case, people are better than computers at spotting and identifying objects, such as a planet, in the footage. Human eyes can easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the background stars and other objects that computer programs would flag.

Astronomers believe the planet exists because of strange orbits of other distant objects that spin beyond Neptune. If Planet 9 — also known as Planet X — is there and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in the WISE movies taken in 2010 and 2011.

This "has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist," said Aaron Meisner, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images.

If an average citizen spots something that leads to a discovery, he or she will get shared credit with the professional astronomers.

"There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Planet 9 could have a mass about 10 times that of Earth and an orbit about 20 times farther from the sun, on average, than Neptune, NASA said. It may take between 10,000 and 20,000 Earth years to make one full orbit around the sun, NASA suspects.

Pluto used to be the ninth planet before its demotion to dwarf planet status 10 years ago. NASA said the search for Planet 9 is a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week.

USA TODAY


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