Online Astronomers Seek Out New Worlds

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By ALICIA CHANG
The Associated Press
Monday, January 15, 2007; 6:33 PM

LOS ANGELES -- Amateur astronomer William Bianco doesn't huddle over a backyard telescope to hunt for undiscovered planets. He logs onto his computer.

Bianco, who was mesmerized by the intricacies of the universe as a young boy, is part of a growing online community that sifts through mountains of data collected by professional scientists in search of other worlds.

While Bianco has yet to make a landmark discovery, he savors the rush of teetering on the cutting edge of research.

Never before have amateur astronomers had so much unfettered access to celestial data once available only to scientists with huge telescopes. In the latest frontier of astronomy, professionals are increasingly enlisting the aid of novices with personal computers to help pore through images and data _ all in pursuit of the next great breakthrough.

"We're in the golden age of astronomy," said Bianco, who keeps his day job as a political science professor at Indiana University.

Thanks to technology, novices are effectively turning from lonely skywatchers to research assistants. Even before the rise of virtual astronomy, amateurs did everything from tracking asteroids to detecting supernova explosions to eyeing new comets.

In 1995, neophyte stargazer Thomas Bopp gained fame for co-discovering what would be known as Comet Hale-Bopp. Two years ago, in what was billed as the first such find by an amateur in 65 years, Jay McNeil of Kentucky took a picture of a new nebula _ an illuminated cloud of gas and dust lit by what is believed to be a newborn star.

Since the late 1990s, virtual astronomy has boomed. One of the earliest online citizen scientist projects was SETI(at)home, which distributed software that created a virtual supercomputer by harnessing idle, Web-connected PCs to search for alien radio transmissions.

While the SETI project hums in the background as a screen saver, the newer efforts require more human thought.

Bianco belongs to an Internet project called Systemic, which boasts 750 amateur planet hunters. Astronomers have already discovered more than 200 planets in far-off solar systems using traditional methods, yet there are likely more out there.

Participants download software and rifle through data that measure the tiny gravitational wobble in a star's motions in search planets that orbit stars other than our sun. Users also try to decode simulated data of planetary systems invented by the project managers _ a task that will help the professionals better understand real extrasolar planets.

To participate, users select a star _ real or simulated _ and adjust other variables such a planet's mass and orbital period by moving a slider back and forth on the screen. The goal is to design a planetary system that best fits the data and then publish the answer online.


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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