Amateur Scientists Help NASA Discover New Cosmic Neighbors

NASA has published the results of the new study where astronomers have reported the discovery of 95 objects, known as brown dwarfs. Many of the newly discovered celestial bodies are within a few dozen light-years of the sun. Amateur scientists from the public realm helped NASA make the discoveries through the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 citizen science project. The project was designed to pair amateur scientists with professional scientists to help scour through data recorded from the NASA NEOWISE satellite.

Data used for the study was also recorded between 2010 and 2011 under the previous name WISE. Other data instrumental in the study included information from the retired Spicer Space Telescope and the facilities at the National Science Foundations NOIRLab. The Backyard Worlds project discoveries show that members of the public can play a significant role in reshaping the scientific understanding of our solar neighborhood.

The browns dwarfs discovered in the project are important because while they aren't massive enough to power themselves like stars, they are many times heavier than planets. While the objects are called brown dwarfs, they would actually appear magenta or orange-red to humans seeing them up close. Brown dwarfs may not burn like the sun, but they can be extremely hot, with some measuring thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.

However, most of the newly discovered brown dwarfs are colder than the boiling point of water. Some approach the temperature of the Earth and are cool enough to have water clouds. Since brown dwarfs have low temperatures and are small in diameter they are faint in visible light. They do give off heat in the form of infrared light that can be detected by telescopes like Spicer and NEOWISE.

One goal of the project was to find context for the coldest-known brown dwarf called WISE 0855, which is about -10 degrees Fahrenheit and is the coldest known brown dwarf by far. It was cold enough that scientists wondered if it was a rogue exoplanet booted out of a solar system, but the new study offers data that helps put it in context. NASA relied on a worldwide network of more than 100,000 citizen scientists who volunteered to inspect trillions of pixels of telescope images to identify the movements of brown dwarfs.