After exploring hundreds of fictional alien planets, gamers have helped scientists locate two real ones.
NASA's Kepler Mission (Getty Images)Players of the browser-based game Planet Hunters have identified a pair of potential planets outside of our solar system that appear to have Earth-like characteristics. Now we just need to invent a faster-than-light spaceship so we can go explore them.
The discoveries come as part of the Kepler Mission, a NASA project that lets 'citizen scientists' delve into photos taken by the Kepler space telescope in hopes that habitable planets can be found.
The game, which is tied into the Kepler Mission, has users observe the light emitted by stars over a 30-day period. If the light curve "dips" in signal, it suggests a possible planet is in orbit around that star.
"The discoveries presented in this paper show … that Citizen Scientists can make important contributions," notes the study announcing the discoveries, which was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The potential planets, which carry the catchy names KIC 10905746 and KIC 6315331, are located to the northwest of Vega, a star that's some 25.3 light years from earth. To put that in perspective, if you were to hop on the nearest, fastest Space Shuttle and make a beeline for it, it would take you a little over 941,000 Earth years to arrive.
Using gamers as citizen scientists might seem a bit odd for a group as large as NASA, but it's a bit easier to understand upon hearing that the Kepler's scope monitors 200,000 stars near the Cygnus constellation and takes images every 30 seconds. And before anything can be confirmed, it has to pass through several sets of eyes.
Planet Hunters uses the same crowd-sourcing methodology as Foldit, which was instrumental earlier this month in gamers deciphering the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.
To date, the game has attracted 40,000 users, who have made over 4 million observations.