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NASA Getting Help Exploring The Universe From 'Citizen Scientists'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - NASA is getting some help exploring the universe.

People from around the world are going through mountains of data and images sent back from space and making incredible discoveries.

It's part of a crowdsourcing system creating citizen scientists.

Queens resident Tony Hoffman is one of them, working on the mysteries of the universe from the comfort of his home.

"When new data is uploaded I will tend to look at that on a daily basis," he said.

Hoffman is a citizen scientist helping NASA hunt for undiscovered planets.

A project called "Exoplanet Explorers" allows amateurs worldwide to access data online from the Kepler telescope. The spacecraft beams 100 million new images of our galaxy every three months.

"There are many more planets in the data than we can handle as a professional astronomy community," said Dr. Jessie Christiansen, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at CalTech.

Christiansen says so much was coming in, overwhelmed scientists turned to the public for help. It paid off: Within the first 48 hours of releasing images online, citizen scientists discovered a new five-planet system.

They found it by viewing hundreds of images of the same spot in space, looking for tiny spots in stars that suggest a planet might be passing by.

"We try to make it easy enough that anyone can do it, and we have people from high school students all the way up to retirees," Christiansen said.

NASA says two days of work by their citizen scientists is the equivalent of one full time researcher working for three years.

For planet hunters like Hoffman, it's a labor of love.

"You're working as a team," he said.

Hoffman hopes the next major discovery might be just a few clicks away.

NASA launched the Kepler telescope nine years ago.  In that time, it's helped discover 2,500 planets.

To learn more about the citizen scientist program, click here.

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