As engineers work to design better telescopes, both earth- and space-based, another kind of astronomy is taking place and teaching us astonishing things about our galaxy. Even though the Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel 8 months ago, the 1.38 terabytes of data (my calculation) that it generated is still being examined — by a new breed of astronomer who writes code at a computer, instead of watching the sky through lens.
They are developing smarter algorithms to scan all that data to identify objects and phenomena that were previously hidden in the digital noise. René Heller, of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, and his colleagues recently uncovered 18 new planets. All of them are small, with the largest being just a bit wider than two Earths. One of the worlds is among the tiniest Kepler has yet found; it’s just 70 percent of Earth’s width. Another orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, where the temperature might allow liquid water to remain on its surface.
Even though this is a fairly prominent meteor shower, there has never been a spatial analysis of the Perseid meteor stream, according to Chris Crawford. He (she) asks, via his e-mail to Gilster,
what if we had hundreds or thousands of people all over North America and Europe observing Perseids and somebody collected and collated all their observations? This is crowd-sourcing applied to meteor astronomy.
Apparently a person with a fairly eclectic set of interests, Crawford has developed software that can be downloaded from his project web site. He asks that people download the program to their laptops and then carry them out Wednesday and Thursday nights (Aug 11-12) and watch for meteors. As one comes into view, we click the mouse button on our computers. The software records the time of the event into a log file. Afterward, we enter our latitude and longitude into the program and then send off the file.
Presumably, the data will be used to assemble a three dimensional map of the debris stream. Gilster closes his entry with…
Usually I write about celestial debris in the context of the clues it can offer up to astrobiology, or as examples of the need to develop the technologies to fend off larger objects like asteroids. But a fascinating outgrowth of our ever more powerful desktop technologies is the ability to put in just a small amount of time to achieve a widely distributed result, one that looks at a natural phenomenon in a new way. Here’s to the success of the Perseid Project, with the hope that it’s a forerunner of future skywatch collaborations.