15 New Exoplanets Within Habitable Zones Discovered by Amateur Astronomers

On Monday, the project Planet Hunters announced the discovery of 15 new exoplanets within the habitable zone around their respective stars, which is where the plane is at the right distance from a star to have liquid water.

Planet Hunters is a part of the Oxford University project Zooniverse. The project enlists the help of "citizen scientists" to help sort through the huge amount of data that is provided by NASA's Kepler mission. The volunteers behind the project examine brightness measurements taken by Kepler for over 150,000 stars looking for signs that there could be planets orbiting them. When a planet passes in front of a star, there should be a noticeable and temporary drop in brightness.

One of the 15 planets identified has already been checked and confirmed by the Keck telescope. It has been named "PH2 b", and is roughly the size of Jupiter orbiting a star similar to our Sun.

Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University believes that there are even more moons than planets, many of which may be lush and habitable. He noted:

"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 paper announcing the discovery of the 15 planets was submitted to Astrophysical Journal, and lists more than 40 Planet Hunter volunteers as authors.

Planet Hunter's assumption that the human brain is better at analyzing the data from Kepler than current computer algorithms appears to have been correct, with the number of new discoveries just announced.

Dr. Linott said:

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