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Even Citizen Scientists are Getting Time on JWST


Over the years, members of the public have regularly made exciting discoveries and meaningful contributions to the scientific process through citizen science projects. These citizen scientists sometimes mine large datasets for cosmic treasures, uncovering unknown objects such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, or other times bring an unusual phenomenon to scientists’ attention, such as the discovery of the new aurora-like spectacle called STEVE.  Whatever the project, the advent of citizen science projects has changed the nature of scientific engagement between the public and the scientific community.  

Now, unusual brown dwarf stars discovered by citizen scientists will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope, with the hopes of learning more about these rare objects. Excitingly, one of the citizen scientists has been named as a co-investigator on a winning Webb proposal.

The brown dwarfs that will be observed by JWST were discovered by citizen scientists participating in Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a project from the Zooniverse collaboration that uses the power of citizen science to help distinguish real celestial objects from image artifacts in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

A comparison of the sizes of a low mass star, a brown dwarf, Jupiter and Earth. Credit: NASA.

Brown dwarfs are objects which have a size between that of a giant planet like Jupiter and that of a small star. The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project asked citizen scientists to help find the Sun’s nearest neighbors — brown dwarfs and low-mass stars — as well as search for the hypothesized ninth planet in our Solar System.

In over 5 years, the project has generated over 20 scientific papers – such as this discovery of 34 new ultracool dwarf binary systems in the Sun’s neighborhood — with over 30 citizen science as co-authors. Some of the discoveries have already been granted observing time on the Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, and the Keck Telescope.

Now the newest and biggest telescope in space will be observing these objects.

“Even though the process was occasionally painstaking, it was worth it,” said Arttu Sainio, who discovered one of the brown dwarfs that JWST will examine. “I ended up discovering hundreds of brown dwarf candidates and many of them have been followed up and researched.” Citizen scientists Melina Thevenot was also discovered brown dwarfs that will be observed by JWST.

Because of his long-time involvement and many discoveries, citizen scientist Dan Caselden was named as a co-investigator on a winning Webb observing proposal.  The proposal called “Explaining the Diversity of Cold Worlds” will study a group of twelve brown dwarfs that all appear to have the same temperature, but still have different infrared brightness.

“We will soon see our discoveries in ways never before seen,” said Caselden, in a NASA announcement.  “These are special moments that we will remember forever.”

Last year, Caselden discovered an unusual object nicknamed “The Accident,” another weird brown dwarf that was faint in some key wavelengths, suggesting it was very cold (and old), but bright in others, indicating a higher temperature than other brown dwarfs.

The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project continues to search for brown dwarfs and other astronomical objects near the Sun. To join in and maybe even discover your own James Webb Space Telescope target, check out the project, or other Zooniverse or Cosmoquest citizen science projects.



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