Brown dwarfs, which are popularly known as failed stars, form a boundary between the most massive planets and the smallest stars; in a way, these objects bridge the gap between these two classes. Brown dwarfs don’t accumulate enough mass to start nuclear reactions, so they end up looking like hot burning charcoal enormous in size (15-75 times the mass of Jupiter) which then slowly cool down.
It is essential to understand them to find out what kind of initial conditions lead to a given mass accumulation which leads to the formation of a planet or a star. The biggest problem is finding them, especially in the later stages when they cool down enough to be seen by any telescopes on Earth. We need infrared telescopes to start with, but still the small size of these dwarfs and their distance from us makes it hard to find them.
Recently, several brown dwarfs were found through a Citizen Science project, which is an initiative by the US government to involve the public in making scientific discoveries after some training via various resources. This project was led by seasoned citizen scientist Frank Kiwy, who is a software developer by profession. The project completed this work by using the Astro Data Lab science platform at National Science Foundation's NOIRLab.
They explored the NOIRLAB catalog of 4 billion objects in space and found 34 brown dwarfs in binary systems. These citizen scientists were looking for the subtle motion of brown dwarfs in images in comparison to background stars. The brown dwarfs that were found are in the neighborhood of our own Sun, i.e., these are the least distant ones from us, and our telescopes could find them despite of their small size. These days machine learning and artificial intelligence can do this work in a timeframe of few hours, but the human eye is still the best and nothing can beat it. Kiwy, as the lead researcher, found about 2500 such objects, but only 34 of them had companion such as a white dwarf or a low-mass star. This work increases the known binary system brown dwarfs by 100%, i.e., there were about 30 such systems already known to us which were found over many years of work. This single citizen science project added almost the same amount; thanks to all the volunteers.
This discovery, along with many others via the citizen science projects, provides an exceptional contribution to professional astronomers, who can use these newly found data to conduct more rigorous scientific research. So, thank you to the 100,000s of citizen science volunteers who are actively participating in finding new celestial objects and working towards the advancement of the field of astronomy.