Remember when you used to stand in the middle of your backyard and stare up into the sky on clear summer nights, tracing the constellations of Gemini and Orion, opening eager eyes wide in case you spotted something you'd never seen before? This is kind of like that — except on an astronomical scale.
NASA wants you to scan the cosmos for the hypothetical Planet 9, and you don't have to have a Ph.D. in astronomy to do it. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is an unprecedented program that uses the space agency's WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission and the power of crowd-sourcing to find celestial objects that may have been overlooked or mistaken for technical errors. Computers may have the mechanical brains to process vast quantities of information, but even the most advanced systems are sometimes overwhelmed by visual interference. Scattered light inside WISE instruments or excessive brightness from stars can obscure images. This is where scientists could use the help of the human eye.
Unlike a computer that can be easily confused by image artifacts which may cause it to pass over a previously undiscovered object, we are able to distinguish such obstructions from significant objects moving through space. This is why NASA has posted millions of videos for users to have access to on the Backyard Worlds website. These videos focus on objects (think meteorites and asteroids) that have gradually traveled over the course of several years as opposed to background stars that appear relatively static. Even from your sofa, you can flag standout moving objects that the science team will prioritize for further analysis by astronomers collaborating on the project. The elusive Planet 9 may even make an appearance.
Planet 9 (aka Planet X) is a hypothetical planet thought to be about 10 times the mass of Earth and at least twice its diameter (emphasis on "hypothetical"). Astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown theorized its existence last year when they came to the conclusion that the strange oblong orbits of some asteroids and dwarf planets on the outer reaches of the Kuiper belt could only be caused by the gravitational influence of a celestial body large enough to be a planet. Batygin and Brown believe that Planet 9 was likely flung out of orbit as our solar system evolved, though there are other theories that it was either sent over by a faraway collision with a star or captured from another star system.
While the hunt for Planet 9 may get all the attention, Backyard Worlds could also unearth dwarf planets and failed stars. Anyone has the potential to also detect meteorites and asteroids in Earth's vicinity. This could potentially alter the fate of our planet in the future. WISE, which had produced the most detailed mid-infrared survey of the sky between 2010 and 2011, was revamped in 2013 with a new mission to seek out NEOs (Near-Earth Objects), named NEOWISE. Don't start doomsday prepping yet — nothing that could turn tomorrow morning into a scene out of Deep Impact has been found yet.
Even if nobody amazingly discovers Planet 9 or a killer asteroid, it is doubtless that there are many fascinating discoveries just waiting for someone to illuminate them. "Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries," UC Berkley postdoctoral researcher and team member said Aaron Meisner, who specializes in analyzing WISE images. "It's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist."