Help Scientists Search For an Earth-Like Exoplanet


If you’ve ever wanted to be a space explorer, here’s your chance. A "unique outreach campaign" is asking the public to help scientists around the globe search for an Earth-like exoplanet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, some 4.2 light years away.

From January to April, observations will be made with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), attached to ESO's 3.6-metre (11.8-foot) telescope at La Silla Observatory. Robotic telescopes around the world will contribute images, while others will measure the brightness of Proxima Centauri every night to help astronomers determine whether any wobbles in the star's motion are the result of an orbiting planet.

The so-called Pale Red Dot project will connect to the public through blog posts and social media updates (you can follow along with the hashtag #PaleRedDot).

The team hopes that by allowing a large audience to participate in the process, it might encourage wider interest in the world of STEM. No one can predict what will happen—only “weak hints” have led scientists to believe an exoplanet might orbit the red dwarf star—which makes the campaign aspect of the observation period exciting, and high-stakes.

"We are taking a risk to involve the public before we even know what the observations will be telling us—we cannot analyze the data and draw conclusions in real time. Once we publish the paper summarizing the findings, it's entirely possible that we will have to say that we have not been able to find evidence for the presence of an Earth-like exoplanet around Proxima Centauri. But the fact that we can search for such small objects with such extreme precision is simply mind-boggling," said Project Coordinator Guillem Anglada-Escude.

While the public attention surrounding the observations is rather unconventional, the rest of the study follows normal protocol. Once the data has been collected, the scientists will analyze it and submit the findings to a peer-reviewed journal. The data is expected to become available by the end of the year.