Gamers Are Helping Scientists Discover Exoplanets, And Maybe Even Extraterrestrial Life

Eve Online
Project Discovery, a collaboration with EVE Online and Reykjavik University that uses the game’s players to inform the ways we find new, undiscovered exoplanets out in the universe. Wikipedia

EVE Online's fans are quick to remind you that it isn't just a video game, it's a hobby. You control a spaceship, mine asteroids and engage in massive space battles or old-fashioned piracy. But you don't control your character in real time, instead setting up spreadsheets and codes that let the game play itself. EVE requires an analytical mind and is played by people who love numbers; computer programmers, software coders and even a NASA scientist or two.

Dr. Michael Mayor, who doesn't play EVE Online himself, is an honorary professor at the University of Geneva who discovered the first exoplanet in 1995. He is spearheading Project Discovery, a collaboration with EVE Online and Reykjavik University, uses the game's players to inform the ways we find new, undiscovered exoplanets out in the universe. EVE players will be analyzing light patterns and other real-world data to see what's out there in the void of space.

At CCP Fanfest, a convention in Reykjavik that celebrates everything EVE Online, Newsweek spoke with Dr. Mayor about the project, the future of space exploration, exoplanets and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

How do you plan to have EVE Online players search for exoplanets?

Gamers will have access to a training sample to see if they are correct in their analyses and then they'll have access to the main body of data. There are many viable objects embedded in this sample; you'll have a table of eclipsing batteries and known planets and other information.

Then, when people detect something that might be interesting, they can check to see if it's already recognized or if it's a new discovery. If it is not, they can send an alert to the people at EVE Online and if several people also find the same anomaly and an alert, we do our analyses and see if a new planet has been found or not.

I hope EVE Online players will have a lot of fun searching for exoplanets, looking at the luminosity from the Sirius telescope and Koro satellite. Later on, they can see images from the Kepler telescope. It's a huge amount of data, all of the immediate data points will be extracted by an algorithm, but there's other stuff that's special and not so easy to find. This is where people can help find exoplanets.

How do you feel about EVE Online now that you've met some of the players and fans at CCP Fanfest?

We've been shown what could be in this kind of game, it's fascinating. The quality, the sophistication of it is impressive. I've been loving interacting with the public, they are gamers and when a new update is announced or something, there's an immediate roar from the audience. I've discovered a new society I've never seen before.

These people are an extremely high level of gamers, when you are looking at the screen in the game, it's very complex, if the game was too simple player's would lose interest. There's no end, players can play for years.

Now that data analysis is being crowdsourced, how is that affecting discoveries?

The interaction between the public and science is fascinating, but for a special reason. First, we have the manpower of 100,000 people, which has never happened before, but most of them will get bored after awhile.

But, there are over one million players in EVE Online and the potential for all of those people to learn about the science behind finding exoplanets and space discovery is monumental, these people are just starting to learn about astronomy.

How can we find these exoplanets by examining light patterns from millions of miles away?

When you have a star, you measure the specific velocity with a special instrument called a spectrograph. You look up in the sky and you see a star moving closer to you and you have to figure out why. Using the spectrograph, we can measure the light waves and see if there's a fluctuation in the star. It could be an anomaly, a spot on the star or it could mean that there is a two body, meaning that there is a smaller object in front of this massive one. It's the same method we used 22 years ago.

Why did you decide to focus on studying exoplanets and interplanetary discovery?

40 years ago, I was working on the dynamics of galaxies and spiral density waves. At some point, I needed to test my theory but it required a long and boring process that's incredibly difficult with a photographic lens. I started using a new device, one that used several thousand spectrographs that was very efficient.

After the director of the French observatory, Observatoire de Haute-Provence, saw what I was doing he asked if it was possible to develop a new instrument for their telescope. This seemed interesting, so my colleagues and I developed the ELODIE Spectrograph. It was 30,000 times better than the previous generation of spectrographs created 30 years before. In 1995, we now had the proper technology to search for other planets and low mass stars. After several months we were convinced we found a new planet.

Do you believe there's life to be found on these other planets?

First, let me correct you. "Believe" is not a scientific term, as a scientist you don't need to "believe," you have to experiment. You can try and search for suitable planets that could sustain life, if you have enough money and technology. NASA had the idea for the TPF, Terrestrial Planet Finder, which was a satellite that was considered to difficult and expensive to develop. Eventually, it will be done because this is a question we need to answer. It could take 10 or 20 years and won't be easy, but I believe we will get there.

When you have all the good conditions, chemistry and physics could explain how life forms. In the lab it's not possible to test the existence if life exists out there, like in the ice layer of Europa, one of Jupiter's four moons, the only way to do it is to observe.

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