POSTED: 12:47 p.m. HST, Oct 16, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 12:55 p.m. HST, Oct 16, 2012
LOS ANGELES >> Amateur astronomers in a crowd-sourced science project have discovered a far-off planet that receives light from four stars. Telescopes in Hawaii confirmed the discovery.
The Neptune-sized gas giant, named PH1, is the first confirmed exoplanet to be discovered by Planethunters.org, a collaboration of amateurs working with astronomers from Yale University.
Poring through data from NASA's space-based Kepler telescope, two participants, Kian Jek of San Francisco and Robert Gagliano of Cottonwood, Ariz., both saw super-faint dips in brightness as PH1 passed in front of the stars it orbits.
Observing the system further from the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the Yale team then confirmed that what the amateurs saw was a planet.
They also described in further detail what PH1 is like. The planet orbits one pair of stars, which are orbited by another pair of stars, at a distance nearly 1,000 times that between the Earth and the sun. The stars PH1 orbits are 1.5 and 0.41 times the mass of our sun, and the planet circles them about every 138 days.
PH1 is the first planet to be found in a system of four stars. Only six planets are known to orbit two stars, according to the Yale researchers. "Circumbinary planets are the extremes of planet formation," Meg Schwamb, the postdoctoral researcher at Yale who led the effort to confirm the Planethunters.org find, said in a written statement.
Schwamb presented the discovery Monday at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nev.
Her team wrote a paper detailing its work, which is available on the ArXiv preprint website. In a report published by the BBC, Oxford astronomer Chris Lintott, a co-author on the paper, said that PH1's four-star neighborhood was "a very complicated environment" and "absolutely not what we would have expected" to find.
Amateur astronomer Gagliano said he was "absolutely ecstatic" about being a part of PH1's discovery. Planethunters.org published the details of how he and Jek found the strange planet on its website.