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New Planet with Four Suns Found for NASA by Amateur Astronomers

Update Date: Oct 16, 2012 09:38 AM EDT

Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. In the classic use of the term, problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users-also known as the crowd-submit solutions which are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place-the crowdsourcer. The contributor of the solution is, in some cases, compensated either monetarily, with prizes, or, more often, with recognition. In other cases, the only rewards may be a pat on the back and a handshake or intellectual satisfaction. Crowdsourcing may produce solutions from amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time, or from experts or small businesses which were unknown to the initiating organization.

Those who use crowdsourcing services, also known as crowdsourcers, are motivated by the benefits of crowdsourcing, which are that they can gather large numbers of solutions or information and that it is relatively inexpensive to obtain this work. Users are motivated to contribute to crowdsourced tasks by both personal and professional motivations, neither of which may be forthcoming.

An example of crowdsourcing may be unpaid beta testers of videogames or software.

But, NASA may have hit upon a novel way to solve their budget funding crisis. Instead of hiring astronomers to work on the problems of the cosmos, they can crowdsource a problem and since there are no shortages of amateur astronomers who can't wait to report their discovery of a new planet or stellar phenomenon and name their discovery as in the movie "Armageddon", in which a rouge asteroid threatens to destroy the Earth and is discovered by an amateur astronomer who reports his discovery to a room full of NASA scientist and names the asteroid ironically after his wife.

Now, NASA and its crowdsourcing partners have discovered a planet with four suns. NASA's website calls the phenomenon a circumbinary planet, or a planet that orbits two suns.

Rare enough on its own -- only six other circumbinary planets are known to exist -- this planet is orbited by two more distant stars, making it the first known quadruple sun system.

One of the partners involved in this effort, the Planet Hunters Group made data from NASA's $600 million Kepler telescope available to the public through its website and coordinated their findings with Yale astronomers.

In combing through the data, "Citizen Scientists" Robert Gagliano and Kian Jek spied anomalies that confirmed the existence of the special planet, now known as PH1 -- short for Planet Hunters 1 -- the first heavenly body found by the online citizen science project.

The planet is a little bigger than Neptune, with a radius about six times greater than Earth.

"I celebrate this discovery for the wow-factor of a planet in a four-star system," said Natalie Batalha, a Kepler scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California.

"Most importantly, I celebrate this discovery as the fruit of exemplary human cooperation -- cooperation between scientists and citizens who give of themselves for the love of stars, knowledge, and exploration."

Perhaps the money the government saves from cutting NASA's funding can be used for scholarship programs to help train and recruit new astronomers so that in the future discoveries can be made by paid, professional scientists and those who study the stars in their spare time.

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