AN AMATEUR astronomer was over the moon to help experts discover a new planet.
Roy Jackson from Birtley, Gateshead, is part of an international team of armchair stargazers who have been assisting scientists in their quest to uncover the mysteries of space.
The 71-year-old retired police officer took part in The Planet Hunters project, which asked “citizen scientists” to spot patterns in celestial data.
Mr Jackson, who joined Durham Constabulary as a PC and worked his way up to become an Inspector with Northumbria Police before retiring after 30 years, said planet detection is just as thrilling as catching criminals.
“The problem is, the astronomers have collected all of this data using satellites and powerful telescopes, but they simply don’t have the time or manpower to analyse it all,” he said.
“So, they post their findings on a website and invite members of the public to check the information and highlight things of interest.
“The experts have to rely on people, because computers don’t have the same logic and instinctive eye to recognise what they are looking at.
“I’m just one of many people around the world taking part in the project. We’re sorting the wheat from the chaff, but it’s really interesting.
“Sometimes, you think you’ve found something but it’s just a glitch in the system, but when you realise you’ve discovered a new planet, that gives you a real thrill. It’s well worth the effort.”
The team of astronomers, which includes academics from Oxford and Yale universities, announced this week that they have identified up to 15 new planets orbiting the life-friendly “habitable zones” of stars.
All are giant gaseous worlds similar in size to Jupiter or Neptune.
However, only one of the 15 has been confirmed with 99.9% certainty as an exoplanet – the name given for a planet outside our Solar System.
The rest still fall into the category of “candidate” planets while further evidence is collected. The confirmed planet, known as PH2 b, orbits a sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus several hundred light years away.
Mr Jackson is one of a handful of volunteers to be credited in a paper on the research, which has been published online by the prestigious Astrophysical Journal.
He said: “It’s hard to find the words to describe how it feels to be a part of something like this.
“I’ve had an interest in space since the moon landings, and I liked watching Sir Patrick Moore on The Sky At Night.
“I don’t have a telescope, but you don’t need one. The astronomers publish the images and data they collect, so all I have to do is look at it on my computer.
“It’s a good hobby to have and my wife, Lilian, just lets me get on with it.”
Since The Planet Hunters project started, the citizen scientists have helped to classify more than 16 million star systems.
One of the main aims of the research is to discover planets that could sustain life.
“I strongly believe there are planets out there that have life forms like Earth; we can’t just be the only one.
“But the distances we are dealing with are so vast that even if we were to find them, I really doubt we’d be able to communicate with them.
“To put it into context, the nearest star to us after the Sun is about four-and-a-half years away. If we were to say ‘hello’ and there was life over there, it would take almost 10 years before we heard back from them.
“But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking; it’s always going to be worthwhile to make new discoveries.”
To find out more about the project, log on to the website www.planethunters.org
I’ve had an interest in space since the moon landings and I liked watching The Sky At Night