HL Tau by ALMA

Citizen Scientists detect dusty disks – Sky & Telescope

The sheer wealth of data that current missions generate can overwhelm professional astronomers, so over the past decade, research groups have come to rely more and more on citizen scientists. A project that appeals to the keen eyes and enthusiasm of the general public is Disk Detectives† Here, citizens explore the sites of planet formation around stars, leading to results reported at the 240th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California.

Exoplanets in the making

Planets forming in protoplanetary disks, frisbee-like structures of swirling gas and dust around young stars; once the evolving stars blow away the gas, debris discs dust and small bodies remain. (We have our own debris disk, the Kuiper Belt, and we see the leftover dust from the formation of our solar system in the form of the zodiac light

HL Tau by ALMA
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array of this European Southern Observatory shows the protoplanetary disk around the young star HL Tauri. The holes revealed in these observations show possible positions of planets forming in the system.

NASAs Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has led to the discovery of tens of thousands of disk candidates among 2 billion objects awaiting classification. But how does a research group with limited resources and time search through piles of data for suitable candidates?

Go to the disk detective

In 2011, Marc Kuchner (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) interviewed soniverse lead researcher Chris Lintott for a book. Inspired, Kuchner proposed a debris disk search project, which launched in 2014 and ran until 2019.

Now, after a short hiatus, Disk Detector 2.0 is back online with more data from WISE, as well as data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System

Disk detectives identify disk candidates by looking for sources that show more infrared light than expected, the signature of warm gas and dust around the star. The citizen scientists not only extract viable disk candidates, but also remove false positives that come from noise and image artifacts.

More than 30,000 members of the public contributed to the project, including 107 “superusers”. Together, these detectives identified more than 50,000 disk candidates. “In other words, our disk candidates are about one in every 40,000 resources WISE has seen,” says Kuchner.

But the disk detective has so many candidates, that… That data, in turn, can be overwhelming. So a team led by Susan Higashio (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) used custom virtual reality software, PointCloudsVRdeveloped by Thomas Grubb and designed by Matthew Brandt (also at NASA GSFC) to allow scientists to explore the data in a new way.

Susan Higashio uses VR to identify young moving groups
Higashio flies through the galaxy in virtual reality. In this environment, each star is a labeled dot encoded with position and velocity information from Gaia. The software simulates 3D movements of stars. The 40,000 disk candidate stars found by Disk Detectives are color-coded so that Higashio can check if any of them coincide with young groups of stars.
NASA / Matthew Brandt

Higashio focused in particular on associations of stars that all originate from the same star-forming region and thus all have the same age. Studying disks in such associations helps establish the timeline of planetary formation.

“Viewing our data in virtual reality allows us to see things from a new perspective,” said Higashio, the team’s lead author. paper appear in the Astrophysical Journal† “It may be easier to spot these groups.”

Evolution from protoplanetary disk to debris disk
This artist’s image shows the evolution from a protoplanetary disk to a debris disk around a young star, a process that takes millions of years. At the top right, the protoplanetary disk is bright and filled with dust. It takes about 10 million years for the planets to merge and clear pathways through the dust. Eventually, as the star’s radiation increases, the protoplanetary disk evolves into a debris disk. Disk detectives look for the excess infrared light that characterizes both types of disks.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Using this technology, Higashio and colleagues identified 10 Disk Detective targets that belonged to stellar associations, which allowed the researchers to determine the ages of the stars between 18 and 133 million years old. “Now we can put them in a time series, and they become part of the story of how disks form and evolve and how planets form and evolve,” Kuchner says.

Join the fun

Among the other exciting discoveries of the Disk Detective project are an eccentric star – its disk appears to contain far too much dust for its age – and a new young stellar group of faint, m dwarves. Citizen scientist Lisa Stiller says, “It’s exciting that we can use virtual reality to evaluate the motions of the stars over time and in multiple dimensions.”

You can join the team at the Disk Detective website† All citizen scientists who research disc candidates in the scientific literature are included as co-authors of journal articles. According to Kuchner, some have read thousands of stars in the process. Stiller invites everyone to join in the fun of participating in groundbreaking science: “We welcome others to join Disk Detective and help find stars who have a disk!”

You can also view others NASA Citizen Science Projects


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