January 12, 2011

Our Holy Grail

There’s always that Quest, that insatiable quest to find the most important thing of all. In the field of Exoplanet Science, planet-hunters are actively pursuing to discover the first earth-like planet, or the first inhabited exoworld. Is that the holy grail in exoplanet science? Perhaps.

But in stories where the holy grail is mentioned within the plot, they often contain twists that leave the audience in awe of the unexpected. Such a twist is worth re-telling in this post because it is a monumental event in the history of Exoplanetology.

One night, after his talk on exoplanets at the American Museum of Natural History, the astrophysicist Ben Oppenheimer poignantly answered this question, "What is the Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science?"

For me, the Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science is simply being part of it. It’s not making the best exoplanet discovery, or being in the news and all that; It’s simply being part of the collective efforts of the people around the Science of Exoplanets.

I still remember that idea so clearly, despite the slight tipsiness from the booze of red wine and olives served at the SciCafe event. As I headed home that night, I couldn’t fathom how the common folk would ever be able to find planets at all. And I wondered how simple citizens could help well-trained planet-hunters.

For many months thereafter, I looked into different Citizen Science projects that show potential. I even wrote about the need to enable the common folk to contribute to the hunt for exoplanets, 'subtly' urging astronomy-oriented organizations to embark on such a project.

Then one day, I became excited about Zooniverse’s Milky Way Project, wishing that they make one for exoplanets, too. I asked the hive mind...almost pleading: When will Zooniverse make one for Exoplanets?

I was shocked a few days later. Along came Planet Hunters, the latest project by Zooniverse that enables citizens to find exoplanets!

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Holy Grail of Exoplanet Science is not an object. It’s not even a special exoplanet. Rather, it is the swarm of people--the community--embarking on a mission to find exoplanets. Ultimately, such undertaking will lead us to answer some of man’s greatest questions: Are there worlds like ours out there? Is there life on other worlds?

Planet Hunters is a Citizen Science project that allows volunteers to sieve through data taken by the NASA Kepler space mission. Participants search for possible transit events by looking at light curves and identifying dips in brightness that occurs when a planet passes in front of the star - with the goal of discovering a planet (hence the name "Planet Hunters").

The response to Planet Hunters was enormous. So much that in only a few weeks, there’s already a couple of exoplanet candidates flagged by several Citizen Planet Hunters (CPH). So far, I’ve not been so lucky of being among these sharp-eyed exoplanet hunters, but I am just happy contributing in the search for planets, no matter how small it is. I’ve tagged a few stars, and identified some dips from several light curves, and so far the experience is awesome. Perhaps it's a subjective experience, that the holy grail in exoplanet science could mean many things to different people. But one thing i know, is that this is my holy grail--our holy grail--for all those who take part in it, and drink from its cup.

The Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science
Data Mining Age in Exoplanet Science
Planet Hunters by Zooniverse