Quirks and Quarks

Amateur astronomers use the 'mark one eyeball' to find brown dwarf stars

Astronomers call on thousands of citizens scientists to help map 'failed stars' in the Sun’s backyard

Astronomers call on thousands of citizens scientists to help map 'failed stars' in the Sun’s backyard

This visualization represents a three-dimensional map of brown dwarfs (red dots) that have been discovered within 65 light-years of the Sun (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva)

In 2017  Aaron Meisner, founded the Backyard Worlds citizen science project to search for and map the little known population of brown dwarf stars in our stellar neighborhood.  These bodies are between the size of a planet and a star but are not large enough to ignite in nuclear fusion. 

Meisner, an Assistant Scientist at the U.S. National Science Foundation's NOIRLab, recruited a huge network of astronomers of all skill and experience levels, all over the world. The more than 100,000 volunteers participating in the project range from high school students to retired scientists.

The project recently contributed to completing a list and three dimensional map of brown dwarf stars within about 65 light years of the Sun. Millions of images collected by NASA satellites were sent out to the amateur astronomers on the internet. They were asked to scour the images for what they thought could be a brown dwarf star.

Artist's illustration of a brown dwarf. Despite their name, brown dwarfs would appear magenta or orange-red to the human eye if seen close up (Bill Pendrill/NASA)

Brown dwarfs are difficult to find because they are relatively small and faint, and often cooler in temperature. 

The Backyard Worlds project took advantage of the technology known as the "Mark 1 eyeball." The human eye and the human brain are superior pattern recognition systems, and were able to scan photos to look for small differences that would indicate a nearby object in the sky.

3D map of Backyard Worlds brown dwarf discoveries (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva) 

When volunteers identified a possible brown dwarf in one of the images, the information and location was turned over to the experts, who looked deeper using either the Spitzer or Hubble space telescopes. As a result, a total of 525 brown dwarf stars were mapped, including 38 new discoveries.