Planet Hunters

PHYS 199 - Fall semester orientation for Physics majors


1. Learning objectives:

  • Students will learn to manipulate data from NASA Kepler’s Space Telescope using the graphical interface provided by Zooniverse’s Planet Hunter website.
  • Students will understand the concept of a time series for stellar brightness data.
  • Student will understand the concept of “planetary transit” and related techniques to search for new extrasolar planet in Kepler’s database.
  • Students will learn how to synthesize informations from a variety of astronomy-related websites to learn new astronomy techniques.
  • Students will work in teams to prepare presentation with results of their work.


2. Context:

  • Research module for Physics Majors interested in astronomy and enrolled in PHYS 199 (orientation course, freshmen fall semester). Typically 6-8 students out of all freshmen Physics Majors.
  • Entire module lasts ½ semester (last 7 weeks of fall semester).
  • Students work individually on Kepler’s data time series, then compare results among themselves and with instructors in bi-weekly meetings.
  • Students work in team to research astronomy techniques used in extrasolar planets research, and prepare group presentation.


3. Resources:

  • Datasets and analysis tool at the Planet Hunters website:
  • Variety of NASA, astronomy-related and general education web sites (e.g. Wikipedia) to research material for exoplanet science observation techniques.



5. Description of activities:

  • Students learn how to use the Planet Hunters analysis tool going through the tutorials offered by the web site. Instructor explains how the “transit method” works, and how can be used to identify extrasolar planets passing in front of the stars.
  • Students are presented with light curves (time series with stellar brightness data) for a number of targets selected randomly from a catalog of ~150,000 stars. Using the Planet Hunters tools they flag possible transits and save data for all stars they find with peculiar light curves.
  • Results are discussed in class: students propose tentative explanations for the observed peculiarity in flagged light curves. Explanations are discussed in group and with instructors, and provide motivations to understand basic physics of stellar variability.
  • Students are divided in pairs and tasked with researching other techniques (using non-Kepler data) for extrasolar planets detection. Students are directed to a number of NASA and astronomy web sites (and Wikipedia) to research the subject. Students are encouraged to investigate strengths and weaknesses of different methods, and when they are best applicable. Results are discussed in class with other students and instructors at the end of the presentation.
  • Each team compiles a brief powerpoint presentation to explain the method they have researched to the other students working in the Planet Hunters project.
  • Students present overall activity and results at the end-of-semester meeting of all PHYS 199 students.