Amateur astronomers discover 42 planets

PH2 b is thought to be too large to host life, but moons orbiting the planet could be strong candidates for being home to organic matter.

James Cameron's award-winning movie "Avatar" may have been a work of fiction, but according to amateur researchers, the planet it depicts, Pandora, may be more true to life than expected.

A team of volunteer space enthusiasts recently discovered evidence of 42 previously unidentified alien planets, 15 of which could have habitable moons, reports.

Researchers suggest that one of these planets — the Jupiter-sized PH2 b orbiting a sun-like star in the Cygnus constellation — could possess moons with oceans, forests and diverse creatures, much like Pandora.

PH2 b itself is not believed to support life, but professional astronomers aiding the group of amateur scientists say any of the newly discovered planets' moons could be habitable, due to their potentially rocky cores, greenhouse atmospheres and liquid water surfaces.

"There's an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering with planets such as PH2 b is far stranger," Oxford University astronomer Chris Lintott, a member of the international team behind the discovery, told the Daily Mail. "Jupiter has several large water-rich moons. Imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth-size moons, we'd see not Europa and Callisto, but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats: A surprising scenario that might just be common."

The greenhorn group of space watchers that discovered the planet originally came together as part of the crowd-sourcing Planet Huntersproject, which teams amateurs with world-renowned scientists and publishes the team’s findings.

To find the planets, Planet Hunters sifted through data from the Kepler Space Telescope and looked for intriguing graph patterns and brightness vacillations as planets pass in front of their parent stars. Whatever the watchers spotted was vetted and confirmed by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

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"These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers," said Lintott, who works with Planet Hunters. "It's remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet."

Professor Debra Fisher from Yale, a key Planet Hunters partner, told the Daily Mail that volunteer investigators can be just as effective at observing habitable zones as computer algorithms are. Last year, Planet Hunters confirmed its first planet, named PH1. The citizen astronomer group has found 48 candidate worlds to date.

The potential for life and the evolution of planet searching has researchers buzzing. Previously, volunteers settled for any glimpse of an exoplanet, but the recent discoveries of PH1 and PH2 b have examiners aiming higher and searching for signs of habitable worlds and extraterrestrial life.

"I can't wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments," Dr. Ji Wang, from Yale, told the Daily Mail. "That could happen any day now."



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