Massive Dataset of Stars Revealed to Search for Exoplanets

HIRES contains a gaseous iodine absorption cell, which the team uses to observe periodic shifts in the parent star's light spectrum, called Doppler shifts.

A group of researchers that has spent two decades using the radial velocity technique to search for exoplanets has discovered over 100 potential planets and publicized its data online for use by others interested in joining the search. The observatory is responsible for charting the movements of around 1,600 stars that are nearest to Earth. Phys.org also noted that an open-source software package that will be needed to process the data will be provided online.

"There seems to be no shortage of exoplanets", Burt said.

The team explained how the observations can be helpful in hunting the planets by observing more than 100 exoplanets.

Jennifer Burt, of MIT said, "This is an wonderful catalog, and we realised there just aren't enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset".

"We're trying to move toward a more community-focused aspect, where different teams can combine their resources and really take this science to the next level, instead of carefully hoarding and protecting their data", Burt said.

For 20 years, scientists have used the HIRES spectrometer on the Keck-I telescope at Hawaii's W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea to hunt for planets via the radial velocity method. HIRES is created to split a star's incoming light into a rainbow of color components.

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"HIRES was designed back in the late '80s and early '90s to go and look at these faint, fuzzy galaxies", Burt told Gizmodo.

"HIRES was not specifically optimised to do this type of exoplanet detective work, but has turned out to be a workhorse instrument of the field", said Steve Vogt of the University of California Santa Cruz in the USA, who built the instrument.

In August of 2016, an Earth-like exoplanet Proxima b was found orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, which the closest star to our solar system, located 4.22 light years from Earth.

The researchers have, however, confirmed the presence of an exoplanet around GJ 411, which is the fourth-closest star to our solar system and has a mass that is roughly 40 percent that of our sun. One hope is that observers will find "similarly intriguing candidates" using the database and their own observations, according to MIT, adding that observations will continue and the database will be updated with new information.

"We've gone from the early days of thinking maybe there are five or 10 other planets out there, to realizing nearly every star next to us might have a planet", Burt says.

We already know that space is awesome, but if you're exhausted of the bright minds from places like MIT and NASA having all the fun, you can try your hand at spotting your very own exoplanets, and you won't even need a high-powered telescope to do so.

Periodically, the team will supplement the dataset with further observations made by HIRES. The software has a complete tutorial guide for the public.

  • Toni Ryan