Today, I presented the latest Planet Hunters NGTS results at the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting in the University of Warwick. Good news everyone! I am very excited to announce that we have four new planet candidates have been found by Planet Hunters NGTS. In addition, we have been able to get some observations of three of these new potential planet candidates with the Gemini South telescope in Chile!
I have spent the past several months developing a software pipeline to combine all of your assessments together for the various workflows that make up the website. This sifts through the candidates output from the NGTS algorithms to look for any new possible planets. In my preliminary search through the classifications available, I took the best candidates that were classified in the Secondary Eclipse Check and Odd/Even Transit Check and shared our findings with the rest of the NGTS team. Four of these candidates look like possible planet transiting planets and are shown in Figure 1.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to go from planet candidate to bonafide planet, so the four objects are still planet candidates. To confirm possible transit events requires using additional detection methods to get the mass of the orbiting body that confirm it has a mass less than a star or additional observations that can help statistically rule out the possible astrophysical false positives that can mimic planet transits (like eclipsing binaries). These candidates are around faint stars which will make validating these planets a tricky process.
Three of our planet candidates were observed in the past month to get follow-up observations. We worked with our collaborators in the US to apply for observing time on the Gemini South telescope. This involves: justifying why our candidates are interesting (there’s a lot of really interesting science that people want to do that we have to compete with!); justifying why the Gemini telescopes and Zorro instrument (see next paragraph) are the best tools for the job (in this case, Zorro is one of only a few instruments in the world that can carry out the kind of observation we need, another being ‘Alopeke on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii); and calculating how much time we’d need to use the telescope for.
The instrument we are using is the ‘Zorro Speckle Imager.’ Zorro takes lots of images of the star in quick succession, which allows us to “freeze out” the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere that causes light from stars to be distorted (this effect is known as atmospheric seeing, see Figure 2). This allows us to spot whether there are any other stars so close to our targets that the NGTS telescopes couldn’t tell them apart. These background stars contaminate the light we measure for the main target star and dilute eclipsing binary light curves such that we can’t see the secondary transits, mimicking what we would observe for a true transiting planet. This isn’t a design flaw in NGTS but a reality of how different telescopes are built for different purposes. For example, Zorro isn’t designed to survey our targets for the long timespan, like NGTS has, in order to spot these transits in the first place. Using different telescopes for exoplanet follow-up and confirmation is much like a football (soccer) team: if the defenders don’t win the ball from the opposition (NGTS spotting transits), they can’t then pass it to the midfielders to move it up the pitch (Zorro checking for other stars).
Our observations were carried out by the excellent team of astronomers and support staff at Gemini and NASA a few weeks ago and we’re hoping to be sent the full final results soon.
What about the strikers in our analogy? If we find out that these targets are solo stars, that isn’t the final step in confirming an exoplanet (it’s also a big IF). We’d ideally take “radial velocity” measurements which allow us to measure the mass of the exoplanet. This technique works by detecting how much a star is “wobbling.” This wobbling is caused by the exoplanet orbiting the star and the amount of wobble relates to how much mass the exoplanet has. When we say the planets orbit the Sun, really we mean the planets AND the Sun orbit the entire Solar System’s common centre of mass. It just happens to be that this point is very close to the Sun since it’s so big. It’s the same story for exoplanets and their stars. The radial velocity measurements take the role of the striker in our analogy, although it’s important to say that this wouldn’t be the end of it and there’s still plenty other tests to do and data that we have to gather to confirm if any of these candidates are real exoplanets. If we’re unable to take radial velocity measurements then we can potentially use “multicolour photometry” to help towards validating the candidate. This involves checking whether the depth of the transit is the same when we observe the star with different filters on a telescope. These filters only let certain colours of light through, similar to how you’d mainly see pink if you wore Elton John’s famous tinted glasses. If there’s a difference in the depth then it suggests that there is a background eclipsing binary system that is mimicking the transit of an exoplanet. The difference in depth would be because stars have different colours depending on how hot they are, so if we see a shallower or deeper transit using a different filter it is because a background star isn’t as bright in that filter. For these four stars, getting radial velocity observations will be tough as they are very faint and would require lots of time on the world’s largest telescopes, but the first step is to see what the Zorro observations say. Once we can analyse and interpret the Zorro data, we will decide on the next steps.
It’s very exciting to have candidates. Even if we can’t confirm these candidates as official planets, just finding these is an important step. We can still use these planet candidates to estimate the rate of exoplanets around the stars observed by NGTS. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to our project so far, whether it’s been through classifying light curves or getting involved with discussing potential candidates and weird subjects on the Talk boards. We couldn’t have done this without you. Also thank you to the extremely helpful team of instrument scientists at Gemini who helped us to setup our observations and the team at NASA for processing our data.
We also have many more subjects from the Exoplanet Transit Search still to sift through with the Secondary Eclipse and Odd/Even Transit checks. I performed an initial search, so there is much more I will be doing in terms of analysis of the classification data over the next many months. I am very hopeful that there will be even more candidates to find! Stay tuned! We’ll keep everyone posted on the blog.
Last week was the Northern Ireland Science Festival, which aims to promote all kinds of science being done across the country and beyond! Since Planet Hunters NGTS is run primarily by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, we, along with colleagues across the Astrophysics Research Centre, decided we’d get involved by making some videos to excite people about astronomy and hopefully try to teach some real science along the way.
Always looking for ways to promote Planet Hunters NGTS and get more people involved with hunting for exoplanets, we saw this as the perfect opportunity to advertise the project, and what better way to do so than to film a fast-talking, used-car salesman-style infomercial including some whacky special effects. You can watch the minute-long clip on YouTube here!
But that’s not all, Planet Hunters NGTS also became the sponsor of the fictitious Astro News Bulletin. The science is real and the bad jokes are sadly real, but you won’t find these newscaster on any mainstream channel.
There are 8 other excellent videos from members of the Astrophysics Research Centre to watch by following the link to the playlist here. Take a tour of some exoplanets; bake a comet; or see what it is us astronomers do all day!
Computers are amazing, but sometimes they do something unexpected. In this blog post, we explain the reason you sometimes find a W-shaped transit on Planet Hunters NGTS.
On Planet Hunters NGTS, we show you phase-folded light curves which are images produced by a computer algorithm that has calculated the best guess at the period of the transiting object (if there is one!). You can read more about how this is done in this blog post. However, sometimes the computer algorithm might calculate this period incorrectly. This can happen for a number of reasons but quite often it can be due to a deep secondary transit in an eclipsing binary system that the algorithm misinterprets as another primary transit. In the image below, the primary transits are the deep transits when the yellow star is completely blocked (occulted) by the redder star. The secondary transit is the shallower dip in the centre of the plot when the smaller star is blocking part of the large, red star. Note that this plot shows both the raw data points in grey and the binned data in red (explained below).
In the example above, the primary transits are at 0.5 and 3.0 days therefore the true orbital period is the difference between them, 2.5 days. If the computer correctly identifies this then you would be presented with an image zoomed in on the primary transit. However, if the algorithm doesn’t correctly notice the difference in depths then it may calculate the period to be 1.25 days, half of the true period, as it believes the shallow transit in the middle to be another primary transit. Once the algorithm has determined a period, it “bins” the raw data points (grey) to create the red data points. This means that we calculate the average flux of all the points in a set time window, which is referred to as a bin. Each red point in the plot above corresponds to a 30 minute bin and will contain around 140 raw data points on average since the NGTS telescopes take an image of the sky every 13 seconds. (The telescope cameras use 10 second exposures, followed by a 3 second delay before the next exposure while the shutter closes and the camera CCD reads out the flux on each pixel).
If the algorithm has folded the primary and secondary transit points on top of each other, as shown below, then the binning process will combine the raw fluxes into an average value somewhere in between the true flux values. This results in the erroneous W-shaped transit!
The next figure is an image from the Planet Hunters NGTS site that shows this W-shape, although it’s only a very slight effect. In this case, the subject gained enough votes to be pushed through to the odd/even transit depth check. This is expected since we yet don’t have a classification option for W-shaped transits.
The odd/even transit check allows us to straight away spot the different depths of the primary and secondary transit. We can see that the magenta points correspond to the deeper primary transit while the green points show the shallower secondary transit. The distinct V-shape of both transits, as well as the rising flux after the transit are stereotypical of eclipsing binary systems.
If you spot something like this, then try to classify the shape of the transit as best you can into either U or V-shape. In the case of the example above, I’d choose V-shaped, but if you need more help then check out this blog post. Also, feel free to mark it as #w-shaped on the Talk channel, it helps us to check why this happens when our computer processes the data. Once we have analysed the rate at which this kind of transit shape occurs, we may introduce a W-shaped classification category to the interface, allowing you to more easily help us filter out these false positives.
In this blog post, we explain the meaning of, and how to use, the different values and info given in the subject metadata on Planet Hunters NGTS.
On Planet Hunters NGTS, once you classify a subject you can choose ‘Done’ to move to the next subject and keep classifying, or you can choose ‘Done & Talk’ if you want to start a discussion with the Planet Hunters community about anything interesting you may have found. When you are looking at a subject image in the Talk discussion boards, you’ll be able to access the subject metadata by clicking the ‘i in a circle’ button. This metadata is additional info about the subject, some of which will be interesting to Zooniverse users wanting to delve deeper into their classifications.
Once you click the metadata icon, you’ll find a varying number of information fields, depending on whether the subject has linked images or is a known planet, but more on that later.
The first field is ‘sde’ which stands for ‘Signal Detection Efficiency.’ This value can be interpreted as how “strong” the signal is, according to the computer algorithm. The calculation of this value is described in Kovács et al. (2002) which describes the Box-fitting Least Squares (BLS) algorithm that forms the basis for the NGTS exoplanet transit searches.
As a demonstration, consider a full light curve (not phase-folded) such as the image below (which uses artificial data). I’ve injected a transit with a 3-day period into the light curve and we’re going to use a BLS algorithm to search for this.
I’ve used the AstroPy package’s BLS periodogram tool. This calculates the ‘power’ for a range of periods, this ‘power’ is equivalent to our SDE value mentioned above. The resulting ‘periodogram’ is plotted in the figure below. This shows the power value plotted against period with peaks in the periodogram corresponding to where the algorithm believes there is a strong periodic signal in the light curve.
As we can see, the algorithm has picked out the strongest signal at a period of 3 days, just as we expected as this is the true period of the signal I injected. We also see peaks (of decreasing power) around 1.5 days, 6 days, 9 days and 1 day. You may notice that these are all multiples or fractions of the true period. We refer to these as period aliases and it’s expected that they will produce peaks in the BLS periodogram. Sometimes these can even be the true period of a signal, which leads us to our next metadata field.
‘peak’ is the strength of the peak according to the BLS algorithm, ranked by SDE. 1 is the strongest peak (our 3-day period in the example above), down to 5 for the 5th strongest. Anything less significant than this doesn’t have a phase-folded image generated for Planet Hunters NGTS. Currently only Peak 1 objects are on the Planet Hunters NGTS site as these are most likely to correspond to the true period of a transiting object but we plan to include plots for other peaks in future.
‘prod_id’ and ‘obj_id’ are internal identifiers that are used as labels for the stars. These values therefore only have meaning to the NGTS science team.
‘plot_type’ simply refers to which workflow this subject is from:
- ‘primary_phased’ is for subjects in the Exoplanet Transit Search. These plots show where we think the primary eclipse of the phase-folded light curve is. See Figure 1.
- ‘secondary_phased’ is for subjects in the Secondary Eclipse Check. These plots show where we think the secondary eclipse could be, around phase=0.5. See Figure 5 below
- ‘odd_even’ is for subjects in the Odd Even Transit Check. These plots show the odd (1st, 3rd, 5th, etc.) transits in green and the even (2nd, 4th, 6th, etc.) transits in magenta. If the depths of the odd and even transits don’t match then that’s a clear indicator that we’re looking at an eclipsing binary rather than an exoplanet transit. See Figure 6 below for the Odd/Even image corresponding to the subject shown in Figure 1.
‘stellar_rad’ is the radius of the host star, expressed in units of Solar radii (i.e. a star with stellar_rad equal to 2.0 has a radius twice the size of our Sun). This can be used to estimate the radius of the transiting object. First, we estimate the depth of the transit. For the subject shown in Figure 1 (which is confirmed planet NGTS-5b), the transit depth is around 0.025 (or 2.5%), since the flux drops from 1.0 to 0.975 (typo corrected). We can then use this, along with the stellar radius of 0.75 Solar radii, in the equation:
to calculate an estimated planetary radius of 1.15 Jupiter radii. You can read more about how planet radius, stellar radius and depth are related here. The equation I use here is a quicker method as the multiplication factor of 9.73 is such that if you use R* in solar radii, as given in the metadata, then your answer will be in Jupiter radii. You can use this method to work out whether a transiting object is plausibly a planet, typically anything above 1.5 Jupiter radii is unlikely to be a planet.
(Note sometimes the stellar radius value will say ‘nan’ or ‘unavailable,’ this just means we don’t have a good measurement of the star’s radius.)
‘primary_phased,’ ‘secondary_phased’ and ‘odd_even’ provide links to the different plot types for subjects that have passed into the secondary and odd/even workflows. This makes it easier to vet candidates as you can view all the available data quickly and easily.
Finally, we have the ‘known_planet’ field. This will only appear for previously known exoplanets (such as NGTS-5b above) and means that the subject image you are viewing corresponds to a planet that appears in the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Finding known exoplanets is a useful test of the detection efficiencies of the project as a whole, and it’s always exciting to know if you’re looking at data from a real exoplanet system too! Some subjects on the Planet Hunters NGTS site are still undergoing follow-up by the NGTS science team so might be strong planet candidates but won’t be confirmed and published exoplanets. This means that there will be subjects not marked as known planets in their metadata, but the NGTS team may already be aware of it and have put in the work to begin characterising the system further.
We hope this blog post can serve as a useful reference in future as you get involved with Planet Hunters NGTS.
When searching for exoplanets, the shape of the transit can tell us a lot about what object we could be looking at. For the Planet Hunters NGTS exoplanet transit search, we ask you to identify if a transit is U-shaped or V-shaped, as well as whether there’s stellar variability, data gaps or no significant dip in the flux at all. An exoplanet transiting a star will typically produce a U-shaped dip, but there are situations where that isn’t the case (more on that below). Meanwhile an eclipsing binary (two stars orbiting each other) will produce a V-shaped dip most of the time.
The first plot (Figure 1) shows a clear V-shape produced by an eclipsing binary system. In this case, the transiting star only partially eclipses the target star, meaning that it passes across the edge of the disk of the target star but never passes fully in front. This means that the point of minimum flux doesn’t last long before the flux starts to increase again.
The defining difference between U- and V-shaped dips is the angle of the sides of the transit, or ingress and egress to give them their scientific names. Ingress is when the transit begins and the flux is decreasing to the minimum (position 1 to position 2 in Figure 2), while egress is when the transit is ending and flux starts to increase back to the normal level (position 3 to position 4 in Figure 2).
V-shaped dips have sides that are at an angle whereas U-shaped transits will have a steeper decrease and increase in the flux, so much so that the sides of the transit will be almost vertical. The reason V-shaped dips have angled sides is because the object blocking out the light is typically (but not always!) another star. The eclipsing star is large (compared to a planet) so takes more time to pass fully in front of the target star, therefore the decrease in flux happens over a significant time period and we get an angled ingress (likewise for the egress as the star stops blocking light).
The angled sides are more pronounced in Figure 1, but don’t be fooled by dips with a curved base like Figure 3 below! If the transit has angled sides then it’s still a V-shape! The curved base of the transit is caused by a phenomenon called ‘limb darkening,’ where the central disk of a star appears brighter than the edge. The eclipsing star in this system is not just grazing the limb of the target star either, which is why the minimum flux of the transit is sustained for a range of phases.
How vertical is vertical? Sadly there isn’t a clear answer to this, which is why we use human vetting rather than just a computer to check these light curves. The example below (Figure 4) is the light curve for confirmed exoplanet HATS-43b, which was classified as U-shaped by all 20 volunteers who viewed it. This is a clear example of the near vertical drop in flux for the sides of the transit. The small radius of the planet compared to its host star means that it almost instantly passes through the ingress and egress phases, compared to the time taken by a larger star in an eclipsing binary system.
But wait! V-shaped dips can still be exoplanets too! Just like the partial eclipse that produced the sharp, V-shaped dip in Figure 1, an exoplanet can perform a grazing transit where it just crosses the limb of the star and doesn’t go over the centre of its host star’s disk. This will produce a very shallow V-shaped dip, therefore we will get round to searching these classifications for potential exoplanets too! The sides of the dip appear more angled due to the shorter total duration of a grazing transit; it’s very likely that the scale of the x-axis on the plots (the phase) will show a much smaller range of numbers due to how short these transits will be. The ingress and egress times will be similar to a regular transit but the central dip is much shorter. The limb darkening effect also has a more obvious effect on the shape of the dip, which we can see in the light curves below for a near-grazing transit by WASP-174b (Figure 5). The dip has angled sides due to the zoomed in x-axis and has a curved base due to limb darkening. This is a classic curvy V-shape, but it’s also a real exoplanet!
There isn’t a definitive answer for when a curvy V becomes a regular U-shape, but as always your intuition and best guess is what we want! We hope this blog post makes it easier to spot the differences between U- and V-shaped dips when you’re classifying light curves on the Planet Hunters NGTS site, and remember you can always check the Field Guide or ‘Need some help with this task?’ for more help. There’s also the team of researchers and moderators on the ‘Talk’ forums who will be happy to help!
Sean & the Planet Hunters NGTS Team
We were excited to announce yesterday a new chapter in the Planet Hunters project with Planet Hunters NGTS. Here’s a bit more background for those of you who are new to the exoplanet hunt.
The Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) has been searching for extrasolar planets (exoplanets) around other stars for over 5 years but we can’t be sure we’ve found them all without your help. Exoplanets are planets outside our own Solar System. We know of their existence from various techniques, most popularly the exoplanet transit method. This method works by observing a star and watching for regular dips in the amount of light emitted by the star. These dips can be caused by other stars (“binary companions”), exoplanets and other strange objects but we can use the size and shape of the dips to pick the most promising planet candidates. Smaller dips typically correspond to exoplanets, for example Jupiter causes a 1% dip in our Sun’s light for any aliens looking our way. The best planet candidates will be chosen for follow-up observations with different techniques to hopefully confirm whether they really are planets!
Planet Hunters and Planet Hunters TESS used data from NASA space telescopes to search for these dips. This project differs slightly as we’re using the NGTS facility which sits atop a mountain in Chile, surveying the sky every night with its 12 telescopes. Computers have searched the NGTS observations to find these dips but the NGTS team can’t check everything the computer finds as there are just too many candidates. Not every dip is caused by a planet but our handy tutorials will guide you through and turn you into an exoplanet spotting expert.
Finding more exoplanets will allow us to learn more about how planets are formed and how they evolve, which in turn will teach us more about our own Solar System and the Earth we live on. If we can understand the architecture of our own Solar System and other exo-planetary systems, then we can better approach the search for life beyond Earth.
We look forward to working together with you and hope you enjoy the project!
Sean & the Planet Hunters NGTS team