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Citizen scientists find a failed star in the Sun's neighborhood

Amateurs sometimes catch what pro astronomers miss.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
July 24, 2017
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Frank Rossoto Stocktrek via Getty Images

Citizen scientists may not have the time and equipment of their pro counterparts, but their dedication can sometimes lead to discoveries that would otherwise be impractical. Case in point: a NASA-backed citizen science initiative, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, has found a brown dwarf (effectively, a failed star) relatively close to the Sun at 110 light years away. Rosa Castro and three other amateur observers combed through a "flipbook" of images from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer to spot the dwarf as it traversed through space. The discovery is notable for a few reasons, and not just because dedicated astronomers didn't catch it.

While it would have been tempting to simply have computers scan the images for changes, that's difficult with brown dwarfs. They tend to be faint, and it's all too easy for a machine to gloss over that info or spend too much time on useless data. Castro and crew not only detected something a computer would likely miss, they found a particularly faint brown dwarf -- it's possible that a full-time astronomer would have overlooked it.

You might see more discoveries like this in the future. Backyard Worlds is expected to continue for several more years, so there will be plenty of chances. And since you're searching through images, just about anyone with a keen eye can participate. NASA even suspects that there may be brown dwarves closer than the 4.2 light years between the Sun and Proxima Centauri. Humanity may have a fuller understanding of its cosmic neighborhood thanks to people working in their spare time.

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