January 21 – Written in the stars

Today’s Factismal: Chris Holmes and Lee Threapleton discover a Neptune sized planet and name it Threapleton Holmes B in 2012.

If you have ever shown any interest in astronomy, odds are that one of your friends had a star or asteroid “named” after you. The problem with those certificates is that they are meaningless; no scientific organization recognizes the names that are assigned by the companies. If you’d like a chance to get your name on an astronomical object for real, then there are two main options: discover a comet or discover a planet. And, of the two, the latter is much easier.

Of course, it didn’t used to be. Back in the last century, planet hunters and comet seekers would have to spend night after night taking photos of the sky, and day after day comparing the images to see what moved and if it was something that was already known. For example, it took Clyde Tombaugh nearly a year of searching through photographs before he found the planet Pluto. But modern technology has made the hunt both easier and more difficult.

It is more difficult because planet-hunting satellites, such as NASA’s Kepler and the ESA’s PLATO, have unleashed a mass of high-quality data. As a result, there is almost too much data to look through. But it is easier because automated search routines and improved computer power make it much faster to search through the data and highlight promising leads. However, as good as the computers get, they still need human interaction in order to sort out the real planets from the false leads.

And that’s where Chris Holmes and Lee Threapleton come in. These two aren’t astronomers; they were ordinary people who heard about the new data and thought that it might be fun to take a look. So they went to Planethunters.org and started sorting through the images. Before they knew it, they had found a planet!

Because the two of them discovered the planet independently, it is named after both of them; that’s the “Threapleton Holmes” part of the name. (The “B” indicates that it is the second planet candidate in that system.) And that’s a name that will stick with the planet forever; scientists a hundred years from now will still refer to Threapleton Holmes B. The best part is that all it cost these two gentlemen was a little time, which makes it a much better deal than those fake “name a star” charts!

If you’d like your chance to become stellar, then join the planet hunters at:
http://www.planethunters.org/

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