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Open Source Photometry Code Allows Amateur Astronomers To Detect Exoplanets

timothy posted about a year ago | from the just-claim-everything-you-wave-your-arms-at dept.

NASA 38

An anonymous reader writes "Have access to a telescope with a CCD? Now you can make your very own exoplanet transit curves. Brett Morris, a student from the University of Maryland, has written an open source photometry application known as Oscaar. In a recent NASA Press Release, Morris writes: "The purpose of a differential photometry code – the differential part – is to compare the changes in brightness of one star to another nearby. That way you can remove changes in stellar brightness due to the Earth's atmosphere. Our program measures the brightness change of all the stars in the telescope's field of view simultaneously, so you can pull out the change in brightness that you see from the planet-hosting star due to the transit event." The program opens up exoplanet-observing to amateur astronomers and undergraduate students across the globe."

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Open the floodgates! (3, Insightful)

FridayBob (619244) | about a year ago | (#44766435)

Thousands more exoplanets coming your way! Good news indeed.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44766533)

It's news, what's "good" about it?

Re:Open the floodgates! (3, Insightful)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#44766595)

It's news, what's "good" about it?

Like all scientific observation and understanding, the effect isn't of the immediate gratification variety we're so keen on in modern society; So it can be hard to see the good. But this is good; It will give us a much better basis for figuring out just how 'normal' our own solar system is, how common earth-like planets are, and perhaps with additional technological advances, where to send probes to search for life on other planets, or even someday to colonize with life. And not necessarily even human life -- we may just load up a probe with bacteria, amoeba, and other simple life and fire it at another planet... hoping that in a few million years, a viable ecosystem will have developed. Our legacy may not be us going to the stars, but rather the bacteria on our forks.

And besides learning more about how the universe is formed, these more detailed observations may open up avenues in physics -- dark matter is still not very well understood. The gravitational effects and whatnot may be too small to be noticable by observing stars... but if we get a few hundred thousand more data points out there that are much more sensitive to gravity waves... we may discover new physics, or confirm hypothesis, based on how these planets move, or gravitational lensing effects, etc.

It is indeed quite good -- and given how little investment is going into science these days... reducing the entry cost and operating costs of any area of scientific inquiry is much-needed.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44768501)

We may just load up a probe with bacteria, amoeba, and other simple life and fire it at another planet... hoping that in a few million years, a viable ecosystem will have developed. Our legacy may not be us going to the stars, but rather the bacteria on our forks.

And someday, those alien scientists will have to explain 'origin ambiogenisis' to the evolution deniers on that planet: "Please explain why you estimate that evolution would take 10 billion years to get to this level of complexity at the rate of mutation, when you estimate that this planet is only 7 billion years old?"

Re:Open the floodgates! (2)

martinux (1742570) | about a year ago | (#44766689)

The AC stares blankly at his monitor. AC shifts in their comfortable chair and then takes a moment to swallow a highly specific quantity of painkiller to combat the headache that's been bothering them for the past few hours. Inadvertently, AC drops some food onto their lap; nomatter, the washing machine in combination with that stain remover will make short work of that come laundry day.

A thought flits into AC's head for a moment, something about where all this technology came from. A related concept goes screaming past attached to the thought of sharing a picture of a cat with a humourous caption attached.

"Thank God for all this cool technology", thinks the AC.

Re:Open the floodgates! (1)

war4peace (1628283) | about a year ago | (#44767065)

Thank you, good sir, I really needed a good laugh.

Re:Open the floodgates! (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year ago | (#44767297)

AC shifts in their comfortable chair and then takes a moment to swallow a highly specific quantity of painkiller to combat the headache that's been bothering them for the past few hours.

Yes, I would imagine that having split personality can give you quite some headache.

Re: Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44767479)

If you have to ask that question, then no explanation will help you understand the answer.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44769057)

It's news, what's "good" about it?

What's good about it is all the lovely whooshing sounds they makes as all forms of human intelligence fly majestically over your head.

Re:Open the floodgates! (2)

Ken_g6 (775014) | about a year ago | (#44766587)

Thousands more exoplanets coming your way! Good news indeed.

I don't want even one exoplanet coming my way! I want them to stay in their own solar systems where they belong!

Re:Open the floodgates! (1)

xevioso (598654) | about a year ago | (#44767633)

This is very important. We truly do not want any rogue exoplanets heading towards us.

Re:Open the floodgates! (1)

niftymitch (1625721) | about a year ago | (#44770245)

Thousands more exoplanets coming your way! Good news indeed.

I don't want even one exoplanet coming my way! I want them to stay in their own solar systems where they belong!

Bonus point for reading with precision... ;-)

Tools like this combined with GPS time synchronized continent wide synthetic
aperture images could open new astronomy doors and windows of discovery.

As it is today exoplanets tell us little just as the discovery of the Higs tells us
commoners little.

Way back when science was the purview of the idle and the rich. With the modern
views of global economy many will be idle and many will be able to contribute
to science (seismic, weather, climate, astronomy, pollution, radiation monitoring,
health, genetics).

Some tasks will be routine while some more interesting... but the data will be available
for those with the skill to reduce it.

Consider the Raspberry-Pi, many forks of the linux kernel might shed light on improvements
where Linus would never gate them because they pose risks the larger user pool
cannot assume. OK I am a fan of low power low budget "sufficiently interesting"
computers. RMS has set the stage with sufficient tools... the future is ours fly free,
fly free.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44770785)

Tools like this combined with GPS time synchronized continent wide synthetic aperture images could open new astronomy doors and windows of discovery.

Synthetic aperture requires measurements of the phase of the signal, and GPS time signals are not going to be anywhere good enough to do so with optical signals... it is difficult enough with dedicated equipment over a short distance. Even with signals in the radio regime it can be difficult to get better than 10 ns accuracy with GPS.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44767019)

Thousands more exoplanets coming your way! Good news indeed.

No, no they are not.

1. The algorithms were already "open sourced"
2. What is the purpose of Kepler and not just doing same observation from the ground??
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler_spacecraft [wikipedia.org]
Hint: the required level of photometry is *hard* and the atmosphere makes it *very very very hard*.

Just because you have a telescope and a camera, does not mean you can you detect some planets around other stars. Heck, if you have a telescope and a camera, you can detect lots of new comets and other bodies floating around our solar system, so why not do that instead?

Re: Open the floodgates! (2)

nospam007 (722110) | about a year ago | (#44767613)

"Hint: the required level of photometry is *hard* and the atmosphere makes it *very very very hard"

OTOH Kepler's instruments are 10 years old.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44768821)

One advantage an amateur astronomer has is time. With a long enough observation period, random noise can be filtered out and a cyclic signal can be found easier. Scopes usually used by pros doing this share time between projects or observing many targets. The only problem with this, is it means a lot of tedious, boring work, that will come down to chance whether you actually find something or not, with the odds still against you. It isn't impossible, but might be beyond the the patience and optimism of most people to stick to it.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44768553)

Thousands more exoplanets coming your way! Good news indeed.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy, even if you're using the Kepler data (which measured changes 1000 times smaller than what ground-based instruments can do). The first problem is variable stars and flare stars. They're very common, but they're usually easy to tell apart if you look at the light curve (planets decrease the light; flares increase it). The other problem, and the Kepler folks spend a lot of time worrying about this one, is binary stars. A dim star orbiting a brighter star is very hard to tell apart from a planet unless you can do a high-resolution follow-up observation and spectroscopy to confirm that what you're seeing really is a planet.

Precision photometry is hard, and while I think it's great that amateurs can chip in on the effort, the fact remains that even professional ground-based planet searches are plagued with a very high false-positive rate no matter how good the software is.

Re:Open the floodgates! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44768873)

The other problem, and the Kepler folks spend a lot of time worrying about this one, is binary stars. A dim star orbiting a brighter star is very hard to tell apart from a planet unless you can do a high-resolution follow-up observation and spectroscopy to confirm that what you're seeing really is a planet

Discovering new binary star systems with parameters similar to some of the situations exoplanet hunters look for could still be exciting and significant.

Re:Open the floodgates! (1)

Hentes (2461350) | about a year ago | (#44778243)

Thousands of exoplanet candidates. Most amateur telescopes are way too weak to provide conclusive evidence.

The 2002 Barrack Obama - Updated (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44766437)

The 2002 Barrack Obama - Updated

                What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz Samantha Power and Susan Rice and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

                What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove David Axelrod to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income - to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics. Now let me be clear - I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein Bashar Assad. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi Syrian people, would be better off without him.
                But I also know that Saddam Assad poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi Syrian economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi Syrian military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

Er... what? (-1, Offtopic)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#44766485)

The program opens up exoplanet-observing to amateur astronomers and undergraduate students across the globe."

This makes it sound like you previously had to buy a license to look up. -_- Astronomy is one of the few things that can't be "opened up" by corporate interests... you can't patent the sky. Yet. You were already able to do this, so let's phrase it correctly; "The program reduces the entry cost of exoplanet-observing for interested members of the public."

Slashdot... please, take a grammar course. Or if that's too hard, an introduction to editing in journalism. Your (decreasing) active membership here thanks you.

Re:Er... what? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44766593)

Dude, seriously, everybody already realises the Slashdot so-called editors are not fully stocked up in the talent department. However you know what's even more mind-numbing than the inane stories and substandard editing on this site? That's right, it's the people incessantly whining about the aforesaid deficiencies. Give it a rest already.

Re:Er... what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44789459)

We're also sick of people like you moaning about people who're annoyed by it. So, go fuck yourself.

Re:Er... what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44766597)

The high entry cost was an impassable barrier for many, so this does open up the prospect to amateurs. I don't even know how to parse your narrow view of "open up," are you implying that the concept of opening up a possibility is only a reference to the patent system?

Re:Er... what? (3, Informative)

Xolotl (675282) | about a year ago | (#44766737)

The high cost was in the hardware (telescope, CCD camera) not in the software. There have been open-source or free photometry codes available for years. Admittedly not all of them trivially easy to use, but then finding and observing the expolanet itself requires some ability and understanding. A popular and quite decent photometry program which is easy to use is C-Munipack [sourceforge.net] . (Which is not to say another one isn't a good thing, the more the better.)

Re:Er... what? (3, Informative)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about a year ago | (#44767167)

Photometry is pretty trivial. GOOD photometry is less so, and good, easy to use photometry even less so. Photometry applied to planet hunting (longitudinal differential photometry with statistical analysis), which is what I assume OSCAAR does (the web page is a little unclear just how far it goes), is another couple of levels on top. OSCAAR's contribution might well be the planet hunting bit, not the photometry bit.

Telescopes and CCDs are cheap. Learning stats and signal processing is not.

Personally, I'd rather roll my own, but then stats and signal processing is what I do.

Re:Er... what? (1)

mrsquid0 (1335303) | about a year ago | (#44767135)

There are several difficulties that someone has to overcome in order to make observations with high enough quality to be able to detect exoplanets. First, they need a reasonably large telescope with good optics and a dark site to use it. Second, they need a reliable and well-understood detector. Fortunately CCD detectors have become fairly cheap and easy to use over the past decade, so these are well within reach of a serious amateur astronomer. Third, they need to understand what types of observations are needed to detect exoplanets. It is a little more complex than just pointing the telescope at a star and taking a few exposures. Finally, they need software that can turn their raw data into useful data, and that is not as easy as it sounds. This is where this new software comes in. Photometry software has become much smarter and much more automated since the olden days when DAOPhot ruled the roost back in the late 1980s. However, a photometry software package is only as good as the data that one puts into it. The observations must (must, must, must) be of high quality or the results will will not be. Also, the detector has to be well understood because photometry software needs to be able to correct for instrumental effects (such as slight differences in sensitivity in different parts of the detector, the amount of noise added by the detector [which also varies across the detector], and the length of time it takes to open and close the shutter, amongst other things). So, improved software is an important step forward, but it is unlikely that this new photometry package alone is going to lead to a renaissance in citizen planet hunting.

Re:Er... what? (0)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about a year ago | (#44767071)

You take a grammar course. "Opens up" has been used for a long time in this exact context: the European sea explorers opened up North and South America for colonization; land explorers opened up the west for settlement; it was hoped the Cape to Cairo road would open up the African continent.

Your usage is moderately weird, even today, and is certainly limited to the last ten or fifteen years. Claiming it's exclusive is simply wrong.

Re:Er... what? (1)

war4peace (1628283) | about a year ago | (#44767105)

Exoplanet-observing was an activity. The program opens that activity to people previously not able to perform it. Watching the sky != observing exoplanets. It was actually impossible to even try to detect exoplanets with affordable hardware, now it's possible. That equates to "opening up" a specific activity which is a subset of "watching the sky".

I hope that explains it for you...

Jobless (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44766503)

Jobless claims fell to a "low" of 323,000 that's right you stupid fucks Obama has "recovered" right back to the start of "the horrid crisis" which is another way of saying the fucking retard has not accomplished a single fucking thing but fucking the workers with Ogabecare....

There are lots of options (1)

g01d4 (888748) | about a year ago | (#44767059)

While any open source contribution is welcome this seems somewhat narrow in scope. There are several, more general purpose applications already available at little or no marginal extra cost that could be used for this type of analysis. Many of these applications, even if not open source, allow for third party additions. If you own a photometer it'll already come with software for data reduction. If you own a telescope w/a CCD camera chances are you'll already be using a program such as MaxIm DL for camera/mount control and data reduction that can be used. Not to mention all the additional freeware (e.g. IRAF) or low cost programs available.

Re:There are lots of options (2)

mrsquid0 (1335303) | about a year ago | (#44767191)

IRAF has a very steep (and unforgiving) learning curve, and thus tends to be beyond most non-technical types. And the technical types are migrating to Pyraf.

Re:There are lots of options (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44767409)

IRAF has a very steep (and unforgiving) learning curve, and thus tends to be beyond most non-technical types. And the technical types are migrating to Pyraf.

That's a bit like saying Linux has a steep learning curve and so the technical types are switching from Bash to 'ksh'. Pyraf is an alternative command environment, NOT a new system, you still have to learn the same photometry tasks.

Re:There are lots of options (2)

mrsquid0 (1335303) | about a year ago | (#44767869)

Pyraf is a Python module that wraps IRAF. It allows one to write scripts and use all of the power of Python and its packages when doing photometry. It is far easier to do complex analysis using Pyraf than using the IRAF cl. I still sometimes use IRAF scripts from years ago, but I have not written a new one in a long time.

big scopes (2)

Sperbels (1008585) | about a year ago | (#44767809)

The program opens up exoplanet-observing to amateur astronomers and undergraduate students across the globe."

Yeah, but don't those with small telescopes just run into the same problem that asteroid observers have? New systems like Pan-STARRS with gigantic field of views and resolution can scan the whole sky very quickly and then a computer can simply analyze the superior data and come up with more numerous and more accurate discoveries...drowning out the discoveries from amateurs.

Re:big scopes (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44769181)

The program opens up exoplanet-observing to amateur astronomers and undergraduate students across the globe."

Yeah, but don't those with small telescopes just run into the same problem that asteroid observers have? New systems like Pan-STARRS with gigantic field of views and resolution can scan the whole sky very quickly and then a computer can simply analyze the superior data and come up with more numerous and more accurate discoveries...drowning out the discoveries from amateurs.

Individual comet hunters still regularly make discoveries despite the existence of large-scale automated searches. The sky is a very big place and there are an awful lot of stars to monitor.

Re:big scopes (1)

Sperbels (1008585) | about a year ago | (#44775113)

That's only because comet discoveries are typically made near the sun, where it doesn't makes sense to the large searches to look.

News For Nerds (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44768849)

Thank you Slashdot for posting an article that is news for nerds, stuff that matters.

It is such a surprise and a delight to see an article on Slashdot that is worthy of the legendary Slashdot of Old.

Please keep them coming Slashdot, we would dearly love to see more!

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