The Futile Search for Planet 9

I got interested in Planet 9 a week or so back. Planet 9 is a theoretical planet, estimated to be 3 or 4 times the size of the Earth, in a highly elliptical 20,000 year orbit around the Sun. And a new website was calling for volunteers to look at starfield photos to try to spot moving bodies – and hopefully Planet 9 – among the fixed stars. Here’s a full-size example of one of the photos they were supposed to look at:


The numbers along the side are degrees Declination, and along the bottom degrees Right Ascension. So we’re looking at a piece of sky 0.25 degrees square. For comparison, the apparent diameter of the Sun and Moon are about 0.5 degrees.

The idea was for people to look at a rapid succession of images of the same 0.25 x 0.25 degree patch of sky, taken at different times, and try to spot stars that were moving.

I rapidly decided it was an impossible task.

For all I could see was a whole bunch of things jiggling around. Everything was jiggling around. And the brightest stars were surrounded by what seemed to be halos as well. It was futile to even try.

Eventually, I got hold of the images in my MS Paint utility, and used its cursor to give me the X-Y pixel locations of one particular little blue star in each photo. I found it was moving around by several pixels from one image to the next. In the example below (click on the image for full size version), the little blue star was 4 pixels different in X, and 3 pixels different in Y, in just these two images. It wasn’t much better with other images either. No wonder everything was jiggling around: even the fixed stars weren’t fixed.


Eventually, I took all 4 photos of one particular patch of sky, and used MS Paint to line them up properly (or what I thought was properly ) over each other, and wrote a little programme to remove all the “stars” that didn’t appear in the same place in every photo.

fixedstars0Here’s the result (right) with fixed stars shown in white, everything else black. I’d managed to pull out a relatively small number of bright fixed stars from the murk. Included among them was the little star I’d used to re-align the images.

It looks like there may be a lot of noise in these images.

I left a comment on the website saying I thought that the stars were misaligned. I thought that the moderators would come back and say, “Yes, we know they are misaligned. But it’s the best we’ve got.” But nobody commented at all for about 4 days, until some guy said that he too had concluded that the stars were misaligned. Nobody else seems to have noticed.

And they’ve got 16,000+ volunteers scouring these misaligned starfield images for Planet 9!

It’s like getting people to watch a video of a football game where the players are standing kicking the ball around between them, and asking them to spot the moving ball. Only the video is so jumpy that all the players are jiggling around, and the ball is jiggling around as well, and so is everything else.

It’s a great idea for a crowd-sourcing project. And the website and the comments and everything was really pretty slick. But the entire project was badly compromised by giving them such poor quality starfield images to compare. Couldn’t they have got the images properly aligned before asking 16,000 people to devote (waste) hours of their precious time looking at them?

I couldn’t be bothered. And I bet they never find Planet 9. But it got me interested in starfield image analysis. It’s something I’ve not looked into before. I’ve been figuring out different ways of correctly aligning multiple starfield images. I’ve already got 2 computational methods sort of working. And I’ve got a few ideas about how to pull out moving stars from starfields composed of fixed stars.

So I’ve been wasting my precious time slightly differently.

About Frank Davis

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14 Responses to The Futile Search for Planet 9

  1. Not sure what it says about me but i read the title as ‘search for plan 9’ and got all excited about a possible remake…perchance staring Debbie Arnold (‘ tag line :’ such evil can not be of thisworld’.
    Then I realised it was about something called ‘Planet 9’ and one of Frank’s ‘star’ posts…and not even the Daily Mail clickbait ones.

  2. C.F. Apollyon says:

    Think about it like this…

    >>>>Couldn’t they have got the images properly aligned before asking 16,000 people to devote (waste) hours of their precious time looking at them?

    A: No.

    They were looking for you. And that other guy that also noticed. Whether they knew it or not.

    And guess what? You just taught 16,000 people a valuable lesson. Up to, and including, the people who run/own that site/project.

    And it had nothing to do with scams or being scammed with respect to the users who are looking at these images. It’s about learning.

    If there is something to be found…it will be found.

    Hooray you. :-)

    Just imagine what others may have found in that mess…and not even know it.
    Not yet anyway.

    ^Paul Keeley – Wegel (Original Mix) HQ^

    • C.F. Apollyon says:

      Oh and BTW, sry…but I forgot to mention this…there are some good freeware pixel finders/pixel coordinates/pixel color applications usually that can be found at places like SourceForge and some of the better freeware/shareware download sites.

      They’ll turn your mouse cursor/arrow into a color palate and/or coordinates finder, irrespective of any applications that you are running, and they are great for multi-tasking when using multiple applications/programs at the same time. Assuming you are a big “ALT+TAB” hotkey kinda person like me.

      I used to use the pixel color finder one for finding/matching HTML or RGB colors. It’ll help teach you a lot about Operating System(s), video card manufacturer, printer manufacturer and monitor manufacturer “color schemes” within these bits and pieces.

      Just thinking out loud here, but color schemes might be something for these planet chasers to think about with respect to sub-grouping their groups, based on video card, monitorr type (LCD/LED/CRT) and/or monitor manufacturer. As-in, inform their users to use a certain color scheme with a certain monitor and/or certain video cards. Might cut down on anomalies when having amateurs chase phantoms.

      These settings are usually in…
      1. Windows->Control Panel->Color Management
      2. Video Card Manufacturer’s->Control Panel (EX: AMD VISION Control Center)
      3. Printer->Settings/Advanced Settings.

      /me shrugs

    • Frank Davis says:

      Thanks. But I’m sure there are plenty of people in the astronomical community who have got very sophisticated ways of aligning starfields. And they’re doing it every day.

      Because when they find new asteroids, they’ll have a recent photo of one patch of the night sky, and an older one of it. And they would align the two images carefully over each other, and any new asteroid would pop into view when they flip from one aligned image to another. And I imagine that they’ve got very sophisticated computer programmes to do both the alignment, and also to find the new asteroids.

      I suspect that, somehow or other, the new Planet 9 website people didn’t have access to these sophisticated programmes, maybe because they had several million of images to realign, and nobody could spare the time to perform the task.

      • C.F. Apollyon says:

        I’ve seen the technique you mentioned used. On TV of course since I am a mere mortal who was lucky enough to grow up across the street from an astronomer.

        And thinking now about things “digitally…things like “noise reduction” and “Gaussian blur” and “compression” and image correction algorithms and the like…you have wonder about digital imaging over time. Digital transfer, digital storage, resolution changes, copies, bitwise and other algorithms for “exactness” and or comparative purposes. Especially as techniques and methods change.

        Q: Don’t they typically only use those techniques when specifically looking for something?
        Meaning: I’ve seen quite a few documentaries about mapping the skies, from Galileo to Edwin Hubble to Hubble ST and beyond, and I see and have seen a great many rifts within the scientific community about how to do things, how not to do things, etc. …and it seems to me that science has become an exclusive exclusivity playground for exclusive rights. I really don’t know how else to say that other than just say it.

        I dunno…maybe that also says something about these HUGE scientific projects that cost billions. Results based science gone wild? The “Wild Wild West of the 18th,19th, Early 20th Centuries…21st Century Wilder N.S.E.W. Style?”

        /me shrugs
        I think you did a good thing.
        Aren’t the details the most important things?
        Even details like…being there?
        /me shrugs again

  3. margo says:

    Those pictures remind of Where’s Wally? only worse.

    • Joe L. says:

      They look more like those “magic eye” images, where you stare at them so long you go slightly cross-eyed and maybe — just maybe — you see a 3D object appear. Maybe there’s a dinosaur hidden in there somewhere…

  4. smokingscot says:


    I note President Trump has survived the first witch attack.

    If they don’t mind, perhaps they could focus their psychic powers on John Francis Banzhaf and Stanton Arnold Glantz. Get some practice in.

    • Joe L. says:

      But SS, bear in mind these witches cast a spell upon Trump, and this spell may take an indeterminate time to manifest itself! So if something bad happens to Trump, all these ‘witches’ will take credit for it … not unlike TC taking credit for the so-called ‘heart-attack miracles.’ There’s a very fine line between witchcraft and pseudoscience.

      • smokingscot says:

        Thanks for that Joe, sort of attempt at a paranormal snowball.

        Can’t say I’m terribly fond of mucking around with the paranormal, though I am a great believer in the energy produced by lots and lots of very hacked-off people.

        So the best example of that has to be David Taylor MP, for whom this quote comes from ASH

        “Deborah Arnott, director of the anti-smoking campaign group Ash, said Mr Taylor was “crucial in getting the smoking ban legislation through parliament”.”

        he was indeed the driving force behind including wet pubs and social clubs into the English ban.

        Then, at the age of 63, just a couple of years after the ban came into force (actually boxing day 2009), he popped his clogs.

        Divine justice, or just a control freak showing us that there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll live forever.

  5. mikef317 says:

    Off topic. Review of a book on drug use in Nazi Germany. While I found the review interesting, I won’t be buying the book.

    P. S.: Plan 9 from Outer Space is a “so bad it’s good” movie.

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