It’s hard to believe that just four decades ago we had no idea whether planets existed outside our solar system. Scientists discovered the first exoplanet in 1992., and since then our understanding of the universe has changed irrevocably. Now, scientists estimate that there are as many planets around us as there are stars. The cosmos is full of icy, gaseous, and rocky bodies that could one day reveal life on another world.
As of October 24, 2023, scientists have confirmed the existence of 5,535 planets outside our solar system. In a way, that discovery belongs to all of us because we are part of this universe. The search for exoplanets allows us all to be scientists.
It’s certainly a nice sentiment, but when it comes to exoplanets, it’s actually true: citizen scientists work every day alongside those with PhDs to find the next exoplanet. One of the many people we have to thank for this is Dr. Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology.
In 2017, Dr. Christiansen, along with Dr. Ian Crossfield, was instrumental in ensuring that planet search data from Extension of Kepler’s K2 mission it became public. This ensured that citizen scientists could become planet hunters.
As a project scientist at NASA Exoplanet Archive, passionately continues this work, sharing science with the world and working tirelessly to ensure public access to scientific data. “We are really experiencing a cultural moment in science about access to data,” says Dr. Christiansen. “One of the things the Internet has done is make everyone realize that there is data that should be available and accessible.”
How NASA’s exoplanet archive works
“This is how NASA keeps track of all the planets we’ve found around other stars,” says Dr. Christiansen. The Exoplanet Archive offers cataloging information and provides scientists (and anyone else interested) with tools and data they can use to further study exoplanets. But it doesn’t happen by itself. Dr. Christiansen is a member of a team of three scientists (along with two data analysts, a handful of software engineers, a systems administrator, and a technical writer) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (managed by Caltech ) that identify confirmed exoplanets. for inclusion in the NASA database.
So how can you include a planet in the file?
“You can’t just stand up at a conference and say, ‘We’ve found an exoplanet!’” he jokes. For an exoplanet to be admitted, it must be included in an accepted, peer-reviewed article. Once that happens, a team member will locate the article (sometimes it is emailed to you, but most of the time one of the three scientists will use online databases to find it; they rotate in month-long shifts) .