Via a NASA-led citizen science project, eight people with no formal training in astrophysics helped discover what could be a fruitful new place to search for planets outside our Solar System – a large disc of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disc.
The research describes a newly identified red dwarf star, AWI0005x3s, and its warm circumstellar disc, the kind associated with young planetary systems. Most of the exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, that have been imaged to date dwell in discs similar to the one around AWI0005x3s.
The disc and its star are located in what is dubbed the Carina association – a large, loose grouping of similar stars in the Carina Nebula approximately 212 light years from our Sun. Its relative proximity to Earth will make it easier to conduct follow-on studies.
“Most discs of this kind fade away in less than 30 million years,” says Steven Silverberg, a graduate student at Oklahoma University. “This particular red dwarf is a candidate member of the Carina association, which would make it around 45 million years old. It’s the oldest red dwarf system with a disc we’ve seen in one of these associations.”
Since the launch of NASA’s Disk Detective website in January 2014, approximately 30,000 citizen scientists have performed roughly two million classifications of stellar objects, including those that led to this discovery. Through Disk Detective, citizen scientists study data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission (WISE), the agency’s Two-Micron All Sky Survey project, and other stellar surveys.
“Without the help of the citizen scientists examining these objects and finding the good ones, we might never have spotted this object,” says Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Fight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who leads Disk Detective. “The WISE mission alone found 747 million objects, of which we expect a few thousand to be circumstellar discs.”
The eight citizen scientists, who are members of an advanced user group, volunteered to help by researching disc candidates. Their data led to the discovery of this new disc.
“I’ve loved astronomy since childhood and wanted to be part of the space program, as did every boy my age,” adds Milton Bosch, a citizen scientist. “I feel very fortunate to be part of such a great group of dedicated people, and am thrilled to partake in this adventure of discovery.”