Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grassroots Astronomy

A catalog of stars that a NASA satellite will search for distant solar systems over the next few years is scheduled to be released today through the Space Telescope Science Institute. In an unconventional approach to funding their research on the project, a team of astronomers is working with a non-profit organization to put the stars up for adoption on the Internet.

"NASA's budget is heavily earmarked, and research funding has been stagnant in recent years," said astronomer Travis Metcalfe, who leads the fundraising project. "We decided to engage the public directly for some grassroots financial support of this crucial element of the program."

The scientists are preparing for the launch of NASA's Kepler satellite, which will monitor more than 100,000 stars beginning in April of next year. To bring the catalog to life, the likely target stars were marked in Google Sky, where potential sponsors can browse them through the project website before selecting a star to adopt for a modest $10 donation. All contributions are used to support the analysis that will determine the physical sizes of any planets discovered by the mission.

The adopt-a-star service, named the "Pale Blue Dot" project after a phrase coined by popular astronomer Carl Sagan, has already attracted donations from hundreds of people who signed up early to get their first choice of stars. Donors receive a certificate of adoption by email, and updates when any planets are discovered around their adopted stars. Each star is tagged with the name of the sponsor, both in Google Sky and in a text version of the catalog, so no two people can adopt the same star. The final targets will not be decided until later this fall, but if an adopted star does not end up on the list, the associated donor will make a new selection.

"This is a creative way of involving the community," said Danish professor Joergen Christensen-Dalsgaard, who organized the international team that is conducting the research. "The present list of adopters is already fairly impressive, and of course the funding that it brings in is useful."

The outreach and fundraising effort is being coordinated by White Dwarf Research Corporation, a non-profit located in Boulder, Colorado. Dedicated to scientific research and public education, the organization hosts the project web pages and accepts donations on behalf of the research team free of charge. If most of the Kepler target stars are ultimately adopted, the resulting endowment is expected to provide significant support to the research project throughout the lifetime of the mission.

"This program educates the public about the Kepler satellite, but it also makes them stakeholders in its success by allowing anyone to adopt a star that NASA will search for planets," said Metcalfe. "How cool is that?"