First it was solving a complex protein puzzle related to the HIV virus, and this time it is the 40,000 registered users of the game Planet Hunters who have identified 69 potential new planets and two very strong candidate planets outside the Earth's solar system. We think we see a new trend in the making.
This latest breakthrough involved taking data retrieved from NASA's Kepler space telescope that has been recording images at the mind-boggling pace of one image every 30 seconds since 2009. The goal? To find potential habitable planets outside our solar system. Trained on the Cygnus constellation — located on the northern plane of the Milky Way — the telescope recorded over 200,000 stars. That's a lot of space people.
The good scientists over at NASA know a problem when they see one. That amount of data is simply too much for a small group to handle, so like others before them they cried, "Houston, we have a..." wait! Let's change that to "Gentlemen, to the gamers!"
Planet Hunters challenges players to analyze data by viewing the actions of stars over time. If a planet passes in front of a star, the light emitted from the star will dim. This dimming is called a "transit." Scientists know it takes about three hours for a potential planet to pass in transit over a star, so that is hundreds of potential pieces of data on light intensity to evaluate for each potential planet. Players were tasked with recording the transits over a period of over 30 days to identify patterns and variations in the dips. Not only would the analysis confirm regular patterns of behavior suggesting planets, but the variation in intensity of a dip would suggest how large the planet might be.
Just four million games later and the registered users had narrowed down 200,000 plus objects to the 69 possible planets worthy of the Kepler team's attention, and two that really hit the mark. The players who isolated the two most promising planets were published alongside the scientists in the article Planet Hunters: The First Two Planet Candidates Identified by the Public using the Kepler Public Archive Data, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society last month.
Crowd-sourcing players to act as one big living, breathing computer is the next weapon in the advancement of science, it seems. While all humans can individually recognize trends and sift through data, constructing a game around an activity means more minds doing the task more efficiently. There is also that indefinable ability of humans acting together to recognize anomalies and reach consensus to confirm data or decision making that a computer acting on its own wouldn't possess (yet).
We would be seriously remiss if we didn't mention that players probably had a hell of a lot of fun while they were boldly going where no one has gone before. Fortunately, the experiment continues as the third series Planet Hunters was just released at the end of September.
We'll understand if we don't see you for a while.