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12/21/2010

Can you help NASA find a planet?

Like many, you may have watched the lunar eclipse last night. The eclipse, which was the first to fall on the winter solstice in over 360 years, had astronomers gazing at the sky in awe. But others are collaborating in an online project to look far further into space, and find new planets - and they're looking at their browsers to do it.

Transits_2 Planet Finders is a project organised by Zoomiverse, which is a service supporting 'citizen scientists'. The idea is to get lots of people working together on a project that can produce useful scientific results. In this case, Zooniverse is asking its citizen scientists to analyse data from NASA, which could help it to find planets orbiting other stars, called 'exoplanets'.

The Kepler project, launched in 2009, is collecting brightness information about millions of stars. NASA hopes to see evidence of other planets as a dip in the brightness of a star, as a planet passes in front of it. The trouble is that computers aren't very good at analysing that data, according to the folks at Zooniverse, which is where you come in. It wants people to volunteer their time to look at some of the series of star images, to see if they can spot evidence of a planet passing in front of it (they call it a 'transit'). Given the right position and size, there could be life on one of them. NASA has already found a few of its own.

Could you help find a planet using nothing more than your browser and a few minutes of down time? You could get credit for it, if you manage to find one. Zooniverse's response to whether you could get a planet that you find named after you: "Officially, no. Unofficially, perhaps".

If the idea of finding your own planet doesn't appeal to you, perhaps you might like to participate in one of Zooniverse's other projects, such as Moon Zoo, which enlists people to classify the surface of the moon in minute detail. Or, you could take a look even closer to home and participate in my own personal favourite, Old Weather, which lets you 'follow' the path of one of many Royal Navy vessels from the World War One era, logging the captain's weather observations, and helping to build detailed weather maps that could help us to understand what the climate was doing back then. It's also a great way to discover some more about maritime history.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets 

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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