Don't mention this to Pluto, but the search for the mysterious ninth planet supposedly hiding out in the farthest reaches of our solar system just got a lot more interesting.
A NASA-funded website called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is seeking assistance from anyone with a computer in sifting through short infrared movies created from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission images. Your goal is to separate potentially unknown celestial objects from the imaging artifacts, optical ghosts, and stars that were captured by WISE's instruments. While computers have improved in distinguishing between the two, the human eye is still the superior method of discovery.
"There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "Because there's so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed."
You can see the kind of objects Backyard Worlds is interested in cataloging below:
So what would a Planet 9 look like in these digital flipbooks? Based on a 2016 study, if the planet has a composition similar to that of the sun, it will appear red. If the methane in its atmosphere has frozen, it will show up blue. And despite theories that say it's roughly the size of Neptune, it's also possible that it's simply too small to be seen at all. All we know is what the evidence tells us: that something is probably hiding out there.
"The distance of Planet Nine from our sun would be quite extraordinary," writes MNN's Bryan Nelson. "It would take this far-out world 15,000 years to loop around the sun, in a strange elliptical orbit. By comparison, Neptune takes only 165 years to complete its loop. This is part of the reason why Planet Nine has eluded our telescopes so far. Given all of this new evidence, however, researchers are optimistic that Planet Nine will be spied within the next five years. That is, assuming it exists."
The Planet 9 search is just one of dozens of people-powered research programs powered by Zooniverse, a citizen-science portal that leverages tens of thousands of volunteers to make new discoveries. Current projects you can get involved in range from decoding secret Civil War telegrams to picking out rare and elusive wildlife species captured by camera traps on the Serengeti.