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Hunt Down Planets With This Huge Dataset of Stars That's Just Been Made Public

Feb 14, 2017 11:14 AM EST

It's a vast universe out there, perhaps even stretching infinitely through space. Millions of magnificent galaxies, stars and planets float beyond the solar system, and now, a team of scientists has made it possible for anyone to discover their own slice of the universe.

According to a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) News, the team led by the Carnegie Institute for Science released a huge dataset online along with an open-source software package to process the information and a tutorial kit. A paper with the details of the dataset is also available on the institute's website and published in The Astronomical Journal.

The newly-released dataset came from observations collected over two decades using the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Originally designed to observe starlight, the instrument can also be used to estimate a star's radial velocity.

"The dataset includes the date, the velocity we measured, the error on that velocity, and measurements of the star's activity during that observation," Jennifer Burt, a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, explained. "Nowadays, with access to public analysis software like Systemic, it's easy to load the data in and start playing with it." 

Scientists discovered that certain movement patterns can indicate the presence of an exoplanet nearby, because of the tendency of the planet's gravitational pull to tug on the star. This makes it a very effective tool in tracking down exoplanets.

By poring over the existing data -- including nearly 61,000 measurements of over 1,600 stars -- the team already detected more than 100 potential exoplanets. All of these need further observation, although the scientists were able to confirm the existence of one exoplanet around GJ 411, the fourth closest star to our solar system.

To maximize the potential of such a massive amount of data, the team decided to open the dataset to the public and try a more community-oriented approach of collecting knowledge.

"This dataset will slowly grow, and you'll be able to go on and search for whatever star you're interested in and download all the data we've ever taken on it," Burt said.

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