Citizen scientist Tom Jacobs of Bellevue, Washington, has helped discover a giant gaseous planet – TOI-2180 b – about 379 light-years from Earth, orbiting a star as big as the Sun.

The former US naval officer has participated in online volunteer projects that allow citizen scientists to look through NASA telescope for signs of exoplanets, since 2010.

The planet discovered by Jacobs is just a bit farther from its star than Venus is from the Sun. Uncovering this planet and pinning down its size and mass required a large collaboration between professional astronomers and citizen scientists like Jacobs.

According to a NASA report, to track the planet, they engaged in “a global uniting effort, because we all need to go after it together to keep eyes on this particular planet,” said Paul Dalba, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside, and lead author of the study.

“Discovering and publishing TOI-2180 b was a great group effort demonstrating that professional astronomers and seasoned citizen scientists can successfully work together,” Jacobs said. “It is synergy at its best.”

How the discovery happened

The signature for the newly-discovered planet was hiding in data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Using TESS data, scientists look for changes in brightness of nearby stars, which could indicate the presence of orbiting planets.

Jacobs is part of a group of citizen scientists who look at plots of TESS data, showing the change in a star’s brightness over time, in search of new planets. While professional astronomers use algorithms to scan tens of thousands of data points from stars automatically, these citizen scientists use a programme called LcTools, created by Alan R. Schmitt, to inspect telescope data by eye.

About the planet – TOI-2180 b

TOI-2180 b is almost three times more massive than Jupiter but has the same diameter, meaning it is more dense than Jupiter. This made scientists wonder whether it formed in a different way than Jupiter.

Another clue about the planet’s formation could be what’s inside it. Through computer models they determined that the new planet may have as much as 105 Earth masses worth of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. “That’s a lot,” says Dalba. “That’s more than what we suspect is inside Jupiter.”

With an average temperature of about 170 degrees Fahrenheit, TOI-2180 b is warmer than room temperature on Earth, and warmer than the outer planets of our solar system including Jupiter and Saturn. But compared to the array of transiting giant exoplanets that astronomers have found orbiting other stars, TOI-2180 b is abnormally chilly.

Also read: When can an asteroid impact cause massive destruction on Earth?

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