What motivated you to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist? How did you learn about NASA citizen science?
I have been interested in astronomy since I was a child. I like to watch science fiction movies and TV documentaries and read a lot about astronomy. In February 2017, I learned about NASA citizen science from a German-language science blog, which described opportunities for citizens like me to actively participate in the search for the hypothetical Planet Nine. Since no special skills and no special equipment except a computer with an internet connection were necessary to participate, I thought it would be a good chance for me to get directly involved in these processes. I was welcomed into the project, and there was a lot of help from other volunteers, all of which helped me become deeply involved in the project.
What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies.
Besides my main job as an accountant, which takes up a lot of my time, I have a few hobbies. For example, I like to play and repair guitars. I played in a band for a while. I am also interested in the coin history of my country. I have learned a lot about the history of my country through researching coins.
What have you learned about the process of science from your time on NASA citizen science projects?
The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project scientists gave us insight into all aspects of the process of science. From the moment of discovery to the publication of discovery can take several years. It is a long but exciting road. I think it is almost easier to discover a new object than to write a scientific paper about it.
Which peer-reviewed research publications have you contributed to through your citizen science work? What was your role in the research and writing process?
I was among the citizen scientists who discovered the first brown dwarfs for Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. I also co-authored a paper describing the 95 coldest brown dwarfs found in the project. That paper was entitled “Spitzer Follow-up of Extremely Cold Brown Dwarfs Discovered by the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 Citizen Science Project” (The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 899, Number 2).
I am also a co-author on a publication called “A Wide Planetary Mass Companion Discovered Through the Citizen Science Project Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, AAS32789R1,” published in The Astrophysical Journal. More on that below.
We’re aware that not everyone has equal access to speedy computers and internet signals. Was this a problem for you? And if it was, how did you overcome it?
I live in the country and have a very slow internet connection myself, but internet and computer access were not a problem for me. Most projects don't require a lot of resources to participate in. I think this is a great advantage of Zooniverse.
What are your favorite NASA citizen science projects to work on, and why?
My favorite is still Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. I joined shortly after the project started, so I've seen many phases of the project over the years. The science team and the community have grown steadily, so there is always new inspiration. And we keep making new discoveries, which keeps things interesting.
I have been assigned the task of acting as a moderator in the TALK forum for our project and providing advice to new volunteers. I answer their questions and help people master the basics of using scientific analysis tools such as NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) Finder Chart, VizieR, and SIMBAD (Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data) – all the things we need to identify interesting objects for the project. I help to create a welcoming, helpful atmosphere for new people, which is essential for keeping them around and very important for the long-term success of the project.
The science team makes an effort to treat us all equally and give us help where help is needed. We have practically become like one big family.
What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?
Through the dedicated scientists and volunteers in the project, I have learned a basic knowledge of scientific analysis tools such as SIMBAD, IRSA Finder Chart, and VizieR, which enables me to find interesting things for science. When I started the project, I never thought that an object I found would be chosen for follow-up observation by the Hubble Space Telescope and be of significant importance for research.
My biggest discovery to date is a unique object – something like a massive planet – orbiting a nearby young star. The object is a ball of gas called an “L dwarf.” Its age and temperature place it right at the boundary between what we would call a planet (like Jupiter) and a brown dwarf, which is an object larger than a planet but smaller than a star. The primary star has been an attractive target for numerous searches for directly imaged exoplanets, but this companion L dwarf has been overlooked because of its distance from the primary star. A scientific paper about this has been published in The Astrophysical Journal titled “A Wide Planetary Mass Companion Discovered Through the Citizen Science Project Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, AAS32789R1.”
This object is an excellent target for atmospheric characterization and formation studies as it is far from its host star. In fact, it will be a target in an upcoming observing campaign by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to measure its atmospheric structure and spin axis alignment.
An observing proposal for the Keck Observatory also has been submitted to obtain high-resolution spectroscopy data on this object. Together, data from these telescopes – Hubble in space and Keck on Earth – will enable our science team to constrain the spin axis alignment of the system*, fully characterize the atmosphere, and confirm companionship (in other words, confirm that the L dwarf is indeed orbiting the young star). The results of this program will touch on two major branches of exoplanet investigation: atmospheric characterization and formation studies. This is a very exciting process and shows that even a citizen scientist can make a great discovery.
*To understand more about “spin axis alignment,” take a look at this discussion about a recent (unrelated) discovery.
How much time do you spend on NASA citizen science projects?
As much as I can. I would be happy if I could spend more time on it.
What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA citizen science?
I can only give one piece of advice: Don't hesitate, just do it! There are many interesting NASA citizen science projects. It is a great chance to get directly involved in science and make great discoveries.
Who have you met during your NASA citizen science work who inspires you?
I have met many great people from a wide variety of backgrounds, both real scientists and volunteers. All of them were an inspiration for me to continue working on the project and to contribute my skills.
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