Archive by Author | Meg

Meet Our Talk Moderators

As many of you probably know, we have three moderators who volunteer their time to help the Planet Hunters community on Planet Hunters Talk . If you have questions, issues, or the rare dispute on Planet Hunters Talk,  Jo, Joe, and Tony are a great resource. You can  contact them directly via private message or hit the report button to alert them to a thread or post that requires their attention.

Let’s learn more about them:

Jo Echo Syan (echo-lily-mai)

Hi Planet Hunters. My tag is echo-lily-mai, many people wonder what to call me? Well, Echo is fine and some call me Lily. I’m very honoured to be moderator on PH and to be part of such a ground-breaking project.

I remember being in a room in Oxford England with other zooites (zooite is a pet term for people working on a Zooniverse project ) when the Planet Hunters project was announced. I can remember being seriously enthusiastic about the idea.

Planet Hunters Talk Moderator Jo Echo Syan

Planet Hunters Talk Moderator Jo Echo Syan

Here are some photos of us ‘zooites’ at Astrofest this year.

Image credit: Jo Echo Syan

Image credit: Jo Echo Syan

Image credit: Jo Echo Syan

Image credit: Jo Echo Syan

Over the years, I have worked on a few other Zooniverse projects. Galaxy Zoo which I am very fond of, and as a moderator on the now sadly retired Merger Zoo project.

I am interested in Art and Science and try to explore the two subjects through my Enjoy Chaos pages.

There are some amazing projects PH folks are working on at the moment, and I feel very proud to be part of the team when Planet Hunter papers are published.

This has only been possible because each and every person took part and helped with the project, whether that culminated in finding a planet candidate or not!!

I hope that I can help along the way, even if it is directing someone new to a link where they can find out what an eclipsing binary is (yep they look amazing) Or, by passing information on to the science team that needs to be checked out.

If you are new to PH, do ask questions, feel free to explore, and behave!!!! You can always contact a moderator if you have any concerns. Most of all enjoy.

We are all very lucky to be part of this science community, which a few years ago never existed and wouldn’t have been possible.

Is our Earth special? Of course it is. Is it unique? I hope we find out one day…

Tony Hoffman (TonyJHoffman)

My name is Tony Hoffman, and I’ve been fascinated by the night sky since I was an adolescent. Over the years I’ve participated in a number of citizen science astronomy projects, including the SOHO comets program; the Spacewatch FMO Project (near-Earth asteroids); Ice Hunters (Kuiper-belt objects), Stardust@home (interstellar dust); GalaxyZoo; and SETI@home; and have even had some success in finding new astronomical objects in several of them.


Planet Hunters Talk Moderator Tony Hoffman – The photo is of me in Kenya, about to find out that eclipses and dust storms don’t mix!

When Planet Hunters was launched, I shifted my focus to it, as the search for planets orbiting other stars is one of the great quests of our time. Up until I was in my 30s, there were no known exoplanets. In just the past 2 decades, a profusion of planets and solar systems have been found. The idea that ordinary people such as myself can take part in this endeavor staggers my imagination, and the success of Planet Hunters—in which a group of people “eyeballing” light curves have been able to find planets that eluded the Kepler project’s own search algorithms—has been a wonderful vindication of the idea that the human eye is better at some forms of pattern recognition than machines. It’s been a thrill to play an active role in Planet Hunters, and to have contributed to the discovery of at least one new world. I’m glad that Planet Hunters has been able to play a role in helping to survey what sort of worlds are out there, and how other worlds and solar systems are like or unlike our own.

I live in New York City, and I work as a writer. I’m glad to be able to help chronicle some of this great age of discovery. Being involved as a moderator in Planet Hunters has given me a personal connection to the science of exoplanetology. I’ve encountered some brilliant people whose skill at analyzing transits far exceeds my own. Although only a small fraction of the 200,000 (??) Planet Hunters volunteers may get their name on a paper or receive any formal recognition, everyone who classifies transits has an important role as a node in this vast human “computer” that can take graphs of a star’s brightness and find new worlds within them

Joe Constant (constovich)

Hello Citizen Scientists! I am Joe Constant and I live in South Carolina, USA with my wife and two beautiful daughters. From a young age I daydreamed about far away and fantastical places. Planet Hunters allows me to look skyward and potentially find some. We live in an exciting time, with the potential close at hand to answer one of humanity’s oldest questions – “are we alone?” The only time I would rather live in that now is in our future where our transportation technologies advance to the point to allow us to reach the distant rocks we are only now able to see.

Planet Hunters Talk Moderator Joe Constant

Planet Hunters Talk Moderator Joe Constant

When I am not on Planet Hunters or with my family, you’ll likely find me helping convert neutrons to electrons. I work at Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear Station coordinating the cause analysis program. Through this program we learn why adverse conditions occur (e.g., why did this pump stop working?) at the plant in order to improve performance and produce nuclear safety (electricity is just a by-product). If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know!

An Introduction to MAST

Today we have a guest post from Scott Fleming. Scott is a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, located in Baltimore, MD, USA, where he works on the data archives.  His research interests include eclipsing binaries, stellar astrophysics, brown dwarfs, and extrasolar planets. Today Scott is here to tell you a more about MAST, the online public data archive where the Planet Hunters team obtain the Kepler light curves that are processed and eventually show up on the Planet Hunters site for you to classify.

The Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) is the official archive of data from NASA-funded space telescopes.  We primarily house data from ultraviolet and optical space telescopes.  Some of the missions we support include GALEX, the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (after it launches), and of course, Kepler.  We also archive, and plan to archive, data from many other missions that have launched over the past 40 years, ranging from the 1970’s to future space and ground-based telescopes.

 Our role in the Kepler mission is to serve as the Data Management Center.  This means that, in addition to some data processing, we archive the lightcurve data itself (the timestamps, fluxes, flux uncertainties), as well as information related to each observation that’s required for calibration purposes, and catalog information that contains data on the host stars (their brightness in different wavelengths, estimates of their temperatures and sizes, etc).  We primarily serve professional researchers by facilitating access to the data, enabling powerful search capabilities so they can locate the data they need for their research, and providing tools that allow the scientists to preview and visualize the data before they download it to their machines for further analysis.  However, we do have some online tools that are used by educators and amateur astronomers as well.

Our newest tool is the MAST Discovery Portal.  This online search interface allows users to enter coordinates or target names and do a search for data across many missions all at once.  This is kind of like a “Google” for astronomical data, where users can discover observations that may have been taken on their objects, even if they weren’t aware of its existence beforehand.   You can enter the coordinates or name of a Kepler star, for example, and discover what other data exist by searching “All MAST Observations” or the “All Virtual Observatory Collections” in the top-left menu.  The Virtual Observatory is an online service that provides access to data from other astronomical archives around the world.  This allows users to search not only the ultraviolet and optical data at MAST, but also data in the radio, infrared, x-ray, and gamma-ray.


MAST Discovery Portal Astroviewer (image credit: Scott Fleming)

The Discovery Portal includes an AstroViewer.  Using background images of the sky created from ground-based surveys, users can see the “footprints” (i.e., the field-of-view) of a given piece of data, and see exactly where your objects lie inside.  If you’d like to try it out, do a search on “Kepler 2”.  In the AstroViewer on the right-hand-side of the screen you will see lots of footprints appear.  The small squares around stars in the field are from Kepler; they show which stars Kepler looked at in the field.  Our target, Kepler 2, is automatically centered in the AstroViewer.  You will notice larger squares around it, which are the footprints of data observed with the Hubble Space Telescope.  If you zoom out to larger scales using the “minus” button on the lower-left corner of the AstroViewer, you will start to see very large squares and circles.  The biggest squares come from the Swift space telescope, while the large circle is an observation from the ultraviolet GALEX space telescope.  You can see how this visualization of data from many missions allows users to discover new data on their targets, and look for cross-mission overlap that can enable new kinds of science when multiple instruments observe the same target.

 Feel free to try out the Discovery Portal for yourself.  There is no registration or login required.  You can follow MAST online on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @MAST_News.  Although our posts are directed at professional astronomers to alert them when new data and tools are available at MAST, it’s still a way to keep up-to-tabs on what new projects are happening in the professional astronomy circles.

15 percent of 1 million


The Zooniverse achieved a major milestone last Friday. The 1 millionth (that’s right 1 with 6 zeros after it!) person registered for a Zooniverse account.  While writing this blog, I decided to go and read the very first blog post formally announcing the Zooniverse. It’s amazing to see how far the Zooniverse has come and see the interesting science and exciting discoveries that have been produced as a result: starting with Galaxy Zoo launching in 2007 to  Planet Hunters launching in 2010 (where we were the 10th Zooniverse project)  to the Zooniverse  today now with over 20 projects spanning not just astronomy but  biology, ecology, history, and more.  Congratulations to all involved!

If you’re interested in seeing how those 1 million volunteers are distributed,  Rob Simpson has created a global map of the Zoonvierse community. Also Grant Miller and Rob Simpson have come up with some other cool graphics and interesting statistics about the Zooniverse on the eve of the 1 millionth registered volunteer. Check them out here, here, and here. Also if you’re interested in seeing all the scientific publications from Zooniverse projects (including the 6 published Planet Hunters papers), you can find them all on the Zooniverse publications page.


Image credit: Brooke Simmons

This accomplishment is yours too. Our estimate is over 280,000 people world wide (unregistered and registered volunteers) have participated in Planet Hunters. 150,000 registered Zooniverse volunteers have classified at least one Planet Hunters light curve. Roughly 15% of the 1 million registered Zooniverse volunteers have contributed to Planet Hunters science. That’s a huge representation! Thank you for the time and effort you put into Planet Hunters. We appreciate the time and effort you put in to help make the science happen. Thanks for being part of the Planet Hunters community and the larger Zooniverse community.

So let’s celebrate this milestone in the only way that seems  fitting:  classify light curves today at or maybe (just for today 😉 ) even take a look at some of the other Zooniverse projects at

May the Zooniverse Live Long and Prosper!

Some More Frequently Asked Questions

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a  blog post addressing some of the repeated questions we get from new volunteers that our Talk moderators, the science team, and other members of the Planet Hunters community have answered, so I thought I’d spend this week’s blog on this topic. You can check out our previous FAQ post from a long while ago here.

Q. Why can I only see 30 days of the Kepler data on the Planet Hunters classification interface but after I classify through Talk I can see more data?

A. Partly that is because of how the site was originally designed and how much data we had at the time.  We designed the Planet Hunters interface to show data from Quarter 1 which was roughly ~33 days long. When longer quarters of Kepler data were released, we thought that showing the full Q1 data in one go was working well for Planet Hunters, so we decided to cut the longer observations  into smaller sections that we would send to different volunteers to classify. Each 30 day light curve segment receives 5-10 independent volunteer assessments. On the Talk page for the light curve you can go to examine star and that will take you to our source pages that show all the light curve sections available for that star in the Planet Hunters database that you can scroll through and zoom-in like in the Planet Hunters interface.

Q. After classifying more stars on Planet Hunters, I think I want to change my answer to a previous classification. Can I change it?

A. No, once you’ve submitted your classification for a given light curve on Planet Hunters there is no way to go back. We want your first opinion without  being influenced by others or added information. For example, you might mark more transit boxes on the light cure of  a star that you learned from Talk is a Kepler planet candidate than for a light curve of a star that you knew wasn’t a Kepler planet candidate. So we don’t allow you go back to change a classification after it has been submitted or know about the Planet Hunters ID of the star until after you have classified.

Q. When is new data uploaded to the site?

A. Light curves are uploaded once we’ve finished a Kepler Quarter (which is 90 days of observations). There is roughly 160,000 stars that get monitored each quarter (the same ~160,000 stars are watched from quarter to quarter by Kepler during its prime and extended mission), and we chop those light curves into 30 day segments. So that’s what you’re seeing on the site, it’s not the first 30 days, it’s currently one of three sections of Quarter 16 of Kepler observations.

Q. Do you announce discoveries?

A. Yes, we announce  the discovery of new planet candidates and science papers on the blog and all of the scientific papers resulting from Planet Hunters classifications and Talk discoveries can be found here.

Q. Are you giving  credit to those that find the candidates?

Yes we are absolutely giving credit to people who are identifying planet transits that become discoveries. Each published paper from Planet Hunters has an acknowledgments section where we list the people who contributed to the finds. We also have these acknowledgement sections as websites. If the planet candidate is a significant component of the paper then we may add the discoverers as coauthors to the paper. You can check out the published papers here. We also acknowledge all Planet Hunters volunteers here.

Q. What about this single low points (see example light curves below) ? Should I mark those as transits?

APHF1140285 APHE1001w3h

A. No, these single low points you see in the two example light curves above are not transits. They are likely just bad/spurious data points. If you see a single low point don’t mark it as a transit. Transits typically last a few hours to tens of hours, so there should be more than 1 low point if there is a planet transiting the star.

Q. Aren’t there automated ways with computers that you could search for these planet transit signals?

A. Yes, and the Kepler team and many other astronomers are doing just that. There are automated methods that have been developed and are being used to look for transits in the Kepler data. Many groups of astronomers are looking through the Kepler light curves using computer programs that look for repeating signals due to transits. The Planet Hunters team thinks that there may be transits missed by the computer that the human eye may find so that’s why we started the project. We have found planet candidates missed by the automated routines. You can find out more on the results from the project on the blog. If you want to try your own analysis, you could start by using the csv file of the light curve data we provide on the source pages (click on examine star on the Talk page of the light curve), but if you plan on doing a full analysis you’ll want to get the data from the NASA public archive MAST at

Q. What’s a Kepler Threshold Crossing Event?

A Threshold Crossing Event or TCE is a potential transit event  identified by the Kepler team’s automated computer algorithms during a search of  Kepler data. The majority are false detections, but a few are real transits due to orbiting exoplanets. A subset of the Kepler team examine the TCE list and whittle it down with other checks and analysis to make the Kepler planet candidate list. We mark the light curves of stars where the Kepler team has detected a TCE on Talk with the  label ‘Kepler Threshold Crossing Event Candidate’.

If you have other questions, check out our FAQ site or Site Guide. If you don’t see the answer you’re looking for, do ask your question on our Talk website

Sky & Telescope

Some time ago, I was asked to write an article for Sky & Telescope Magazine about Planet Hunters, citizen science, and how the public can contribute to science with the Zooniverse. The new edition (March) of Sky & Telescope is out, and my article (‘How You Can Find An Exoplanet‘) is  featured on the cover.  I’m really pleased with how the article turned out, and I especially  love the cover slogan: ‘Planet Hunting Goes Public: No Sky, No Scope, No Problem!’  Maybe we should adopt that as the official Planet Hunters motto. What do you think?

You can read more in the digital version if you have a subscription or in the printed magazine which should be out on newsstands soon. There is also a digital companion piece to the article that I wrote on Planet Four and Space Warps which is freely available online here if you care to check it out.

Making Way for Q16

Currently the light curves you are classifying on Planet Hunters come from Quarter 14 (Q14) of Kepler data. With the start of the new year, we’re close to having the classifications needed to move on to newer Kepler observations. We have a new quarter (90 days) of Kepler data processed and loaded into the website, poised and ready to start showing on the main classification interface once Q14 is complete.

We’ve decided to skip Quarter 15 for the moment and instead go on to Quarter 16 (Q16), the most recent hot off the presses data released by NASA and the Kepler team. Similar to Q14, the naming convention for Q16 starts with APHF to distinguish it from the other quarters of data already shown on Planet Hunters. You might have already noticed that the Q16 light curves are in Talk and the source pages.

Quarter 16 is the last full quarter of observations to come off of the Kepler spacecraft of the star field that Kepler had monitored for the past four years. Shortly after the start of Quarter 17, Kepler had a reaction wheel failure that has crippled the spacecraft such that it can no longer point with sufficient accuracy to look for planets as it had once done in the Kepler field. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the first full engineering test field observations of a two-wheeled Kepler mission (dubbed ‘K2’), to search for exoplanets around stars in the ecliptic plane, will begin in early March.

With any luck the NASA senior review this Spring will approve the K2 mission, and if all goes ahead there will be Kepler light curves of new stars coming for at least 2 more years , barring any unexpected spacecraft malfunctions. In the meantime we have the K2 engineering data to look forward to and the remaining primary mission Kepler data (Q1-Q17) to search through.

You can help make way for Quarter 16 by classifying light curves today at

AAS Talk – Planet Hunters: Kepler by Eye

Yesterday I gave a talk at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting titled ‘Planet Hunters: Kepler by Eye’  at the National Harbor outside of Washington, DC. The talk gives a brief overview of 3 years of Planet Hunters science. I decided rather than just posting the slides, I’d record one of my practice run throughs of my talk. Below is the recorded video. This was before I gave my talk, so there may been some minor tweaks and changes but the main points and slides are the same.

Planet Hunters at the 223rd American Astronomical Society Meeting


Today is the first day of  the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) 223rd meeting. This 4 day conference is being held at the National Harbor outside of  Washington, DC. It is one of the largest yearly gatherings of astronomers and astrophysicists from across the US and around the world.  Most of the Planet Hunters science team will be in attendance this year. You can follow along with the attendees (including me) who will be live tweeting the conference with the hashtag #AAS223.

Most attendees at AAS will present talks and posters about their current research.  Typical talks are about 5 minutes in length with a minute or two for questions. There are also longer plenary talks from invited speakers and the winners from the previous year’s AAS-sponsored awards and prizes. I’ve been invited to give a longer talk in one of the two special sessions being organized at the meeting on Kepler science. I will be one of the first talks of the meeting, giving the first talk  in the ‘Exoplanets and Kepler Astrophysics Special Session’ today.  I will have  30 minutes (including the time for audience questions) to give an overview of Planet Hunters and the science highlights from the past 3 years. My talk is titled ‘Planet Hunters: Kepler by Eye’.  You can read the abstract here. I’m very excited about this opportunity to promote Planet Hunters and show the rest of the field the science we’ve been doing with your help.  I’ll try to post my slides on the blog later in the week.

Also Joey Schmitt from Yale will be presenting a poster titled ‘Two New Confirmed Planets and the First Kepler Seven Candidate System’  this week at AAS as well. You can read his poster abstract here.

Updated Talk Labels

We have made some updates to the labels that you may encounter on Talk. You may might noticed that sometimes below the light curve on its Talk page, there was black text below  such as ‘Kepler favorite’ or ‘known eclipsing binary’ for example. In these cases, the light curves where from stars where the Kepler team had already identified what they believed to be an exoplanet transiting or an eclipsing star respectively. In preparation for Quarter 16, we have updated and expanded the list of Talk labels.

Updated Talk Labels

The Kepler team’s planet candidate list from Quarter’s 1-12 is now out, and you’ll find those  stars listed as Kepler favorites. Stars that are believed to harbor multiple transiting planets have an additional label, ‘Kepler multiplanet candidate’. The Kepler team has also expanded their list of false positives, where there is a signal the Kepler team spotted in the observations of that star that looks like a transit, but is due to some other astrophysical cause or systematic error. You’ll find those stars labeled as ‘Confirmed Kepler false-positive’. The Kepler eclipsing binary catalog has been updated  as well, and a preliminary version of the new catalog was used to identify already known eclipsing binaries.

New Talk Labels

To help with the volunteer-led efforts on Talk to find new planet candidates, we now identify with labels those light curves that are from stars that the Kepler team’s automated detection algorithm identified potential transit signals or Threshold Crossing Events (TCEs) as they are dubbed by the Kepler team. TCEs are not planet candidates, much more vetting and analysis goes into reviewing the TCEs in order to identify the planet candidates among them. You will see the TCEs from the Q1-Q12 observation  identified by the Kepler team’s automated routines on Talk with the label ‘Kepler Threshold Crossing Event Candidate’.

Planet Hunters volunteers have been spotting new dwarf novae and RR Lyrae variable stars on Talk. To help with this effort, we have now included labels for both categories. You’ll see ‘Known Dwarf Nova’ and ‘Known RR Lyrae Variable Star’ respectively. Thanks to Daryll (nighthawk_black) for assembling the Dwarf novae list and to Abe (cappella) and Robert Szabo for the RR Lyrae list.

Let’s not forget PH1 b and circumbinary planets, where the planet orbits both stars in a stellar binary. The 6 published circumbinary planets are now labeled in Talk as ‘Confirmed Circumbinary Planet’. So let’s go find another!

Happy hunting!

Happy Holidays

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Happy Holidays and Merry Northern Winter (and Southern Summer) Solstice from everyone on the Planets Hunters team.

Three years ago, Planet Hunters was hiding behind one of the doors of the the Zooniverse Advent Calendar. In the spirit of the holiday season, there were several Planet Hunters themed gifts as part of this year’s calendar:

  • Day 2 – The short film ‘A Close Distance’ documenting the lives of people looking for exoplanets  including Planet Hunters volunteer Caroyln Bol.

And be sure to check out today’s very last door of the Advent Calendar.

Not part of the advent calendar but still a nice way to cap off the end of this year was the release of the NASA Astrophysics Roadmap on December 20th where Planet Hunters (along with Galaxy Zoo)  is highlighted as having ‘led the way in astrophysics citizen science’. You can read more about that here.

Thank you for all the time and effort you put into Planet Hunters not just now but throughout the year. Wishing you a very Merry Solstice and Happy Holidays from us to you.