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Hey, alien hunters: NASA's alien planet archive is open for business

"The entire world can help us" find exoplanets (alien planets), says a Kepler scientist. NASA is throwing open its list of possible exoplanets to anyone who wants to look.

Image

This artist's conception depicts the Kepler-10 star system, located about 560 light-years away, near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations. Kepler has discovered two planets around this star. Kepler-10b, the dark spot against the yellow sun, is (so far!) the smallest known rocky exoplanet, or planet outside our solar system.

T. Pyle / JPL-Caltech / NASA-Ames

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Scientists with NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft have revamped the mission's online archive of alien worlds, opening up the database for the entire world to see.

Researchers are now posting all exoplanet sightings by the Kepler observatory into a single, comprehensive website called the "NASA Exoplanet Archive." Instead of going through the long planet confirmation process before making data publicly available, since December of last year, scientists have started shoveling out all the data Kepler collects into a comprehensive list.

"When we make that list, right away it goes to the archive," Kepler mission team member Steve Howell told SPACE.com during the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif., this month. "So the day we know about the list, the archive knows about the list. And then everybody, including us, can work on that list. But that list is dynamic so if we, or a community person, makes an observation and says, 'Hey, I looked at this planet candidate but it's really an eclipsing binary,' then that entry in the archive will be changed."

The archive has information about the size, orbital period and other metrics of any possible planet discovered and investigated by Kepler.

"It's all in real time," Howell said. "The sausage-making process is exposed."

Before the new archive was debuted, astronomers were already doing creative work with the data. One created a visually stunning video of every known Kepler planet candidate — 2,299 unconfirmed exoplanets at the time — orbiting one central point.

The Kepler team’s new "open" attitude toward data release is giving everybody, not just members of the scientific community, a chance to do some hands-on scientific research by building their own experiments, Howell said.

A group of high school students has already taken data from groups of planets observed by Kepler and mapped them against a map of known stars looking for a pattern. Howell doesn’t think they'll see much, but he's glad that they have the opportunity to get creative.

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