What's Your Moonshot? Aaron Meisner and Backyard Worlds Want to Discover Our Solar System's Ninth Planet

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In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of NASA astronauts landing on the moon, Newsweek is spotlighting pioneers in science and technology, highlighting their very own moonshots and how they hope to change the world.

Aaron Meisner, the 31-year-old NASA Hubble Fellow and co-founder of Backyard Worlds Citizen Science project, is changing the way humans look at the stars. Aaron has been using big data mining techniques and a team of amateur volunteers across the world to search for undiscovered planets and other celestial bodies, which may include our solar system's theorized ninth planet. These citizen scientists are parsing through astronomical data sets and images gathered by infrared-wavelength space telescopes. The ancient practice of studying the universe is becoming digital, and as Aaron believes, the discoveries are in the data, just waiting to be found.

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Aaron Meisner Courtesy of Aaron Meisner

Can you tell me about Backyard Worlds?
The site is based on data coming in from a NASA satellite. We have over 50,000 registered users and about 150,000 actual participants. We upload "image blinks" of the same place in the sky and how it changes over time, where people can look at them. They are looking for things that move, basically, because it turns out people are really good at recognizing subtle motion in images and are more trustworthy than computers.

Where do you see the progression of Backyard Worlds going?
We just relaunched our website with twice as much data, so I think the project will keep growing and get better. We've made over a thousand discoveries now that are being followed up with some of the biggest and best telescopes on Earth and in space. The question is still open to whether we really find the one, in terms of potentially a new planet: Planet 9.

Is your ultimate goal then—your moonshot—finding Planet 9?
For now, it definitely is a dream goal to discover a new planet in the outer solar system. But more generally, what I like about astronomy is that you have the potential to have a real breakthrough discovery where, all of a sudden, you can change the way people look at the universe. That's what inspires me, whether that's Planet 9 or some other big discovery we make along the way.

Can you speak a little more to your inspiration?
It is a very data-driven field, and there are vast archives that exist that haven't fully been searched. There may be a "once in a century" type of discovery just sitting there, hidden in those existing piles of data. What inspires me is the thrill of the hunt in trying to find these exciting discoveries among many other billions of stars and galaxies.

Is there a problem you're facing?
The problem is we don't really understand our own solar system yet, which is surprising given how long people have, over the centuries, looked for new planets. There are many theories and hypotheses about the different types of planets that could still be lurking in the outer parts of the solar system. If there is a planet out there, it could be Neptune- or Saturn-sized, so we really want to know if there is a ninth planet way out beyond Pluto. I also think the fact that astronomy is so data-driven is both a blessing and a curse. We have this great wealth of data, but need a way to fully explore it. We have supercomputers, but even that doesn't fully work. So, this is one thing I explored through the Backyard Worlds project, which is bringing back in the human element to the exploration of these big data sets.

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Citizen scientists comb through the images gathered by telescopes like NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

How close are you to overall success?
We've been very successful at taking this NASA data, which is funded by the public, and bringing it back to the people in a fun and accessible way. We've made a lot of discoveries along the way, including free-floating planets that are like Jupiter, but just roaming around interstellar space nearby the sun. We've had some of the best telescopes on earth and in space, including the Hubble space telescope, looking at these discoveries that are made by our volunteers. So, in terms of societal good and scientific productivity, we've had a lot of success, but we're still searching for the one big hit.

How do you picture astronomy in 20 years if you succeed?
I would hope we've resolved the question of the ninth planet, or potentially more in our own solar system, but I also think there are bigger trends going on in astronomy that mirror what's going on in other sciences and industries. Big data is becoming a major theme in astronomy where you don't necessarily need to have a backyard telescope to participate in astronomy anymore, you just need an internet connection to look at the data and help the professional researchers make these new discoveries. There's a democratization of the science process going on, where we have so much data for everyone to look at. It's inevitable that we will unlock a whole bunch of new knowledge and new discoveries. We're combing supercomputers and machine learning, but there's still a role to play from the human side.