COTTONWOOD - There are few things in life that can fire our imagination like the night sky.
A glittering blanket limited only by our earthly horizon, it is a source of curiosity and wonder few of us outgrow.
Robert Gagliano is no exception.
For him as a child, stars, Mars and UFOs nurtured a love of science and a spirit of discovery that today, at 68, still defines the person he is.
His love of the night sky never led him to a cold observatory on a remote mountain peak. Instead he became a doctor -- an oncologist peering into the earth-bound mysteries of cancer.
For much of his adult life he lived in Las Vegas, where the lights of a city that never sleeps afforded a limited view of the heavens.
But in 1997, he moved to Cottonwood. He joined the local astronomy club, and his passion was rekindled.
He also began participating in something called Web-based astronomy - programs where the public is invited to help professional astronomers sort through the growing mountains of data brought to earth from land-based and orbiting telescopes.
Over the years Gagliano has spent many a waking hour, and even some when he should have been sleeping, sifting through that data.
In 2004 his persistence led to the discovery of a previously unidentified "near Earth object," now known to science as 2004 HC 33.
In 2009 he joined other citizen scientists in the search for planets orbiting stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, a joint project between NASA and scientists at Oxford and Yale universities, called Planet Hunters.
The notion behind the project is that human eyes were better at discerning patterns than computers. The tens of thousands of volunteers in the project serve as a second set of eyes, to pick up what the computers miss.
Participants view light curves, patterns developed by the light emitted from individual stars, over time, and captured by the orbiting Kepler telescope.
Gagliano spent hours on the Internet viewing light curves, looking for "transits," obscure dimming of the light emitted from a star, which are indicators of a celestial body crossing the face of the star.
In most instances transits are caused by a pair of binary stars orbiting one another. On a growing number of occasions, it is the signature of an orbiting planet.
On March 22, 2011, Gagliano was sifting through light curves on the Website zooniverse.com (see related story) when he spotted what he believed was a transit of a star designated as KIC 4552729.
He sent his findings to the professional astronomers.
He wasn't the only one to suspect the transit. Seven others observed the same thing. Gagliano, though, was the first.
His observation was checked and rechecked through optical telescopes in Chile, Hawaii and California.
On Feb. 27, 2012, the Kepler science team released a paper, not only noting the likelihood that the transit he observed was a planet, but also giving Gagliano credit for its discovery.
The report also noted that it was the first planet ever discovered by a human being sifting through data that had been missed by computers.
To date, citizen scientists have discovered 53 transits that appear to be planets orbiting distant stars. Gagliano has participated in the discovery of four of them.
"Whenever you find one of these transits, you realize it might be a planet, but you don't find out until later that you made any real discovery -- not until the science team notifies you that, yes, you've found something of importance -- that this could be a real planet.
"That's the real exciting part. It's exciting for me that an amateur astronomer can find one," he says.
According to the astronomers who further investigated Gagliano's finding, the planet is about 4.5 times the size of Earth and is orbiting NIC 4552729 every 97 days. It is also orbiting in what scientists call the "Goldilocks zone," the region in which life, as we know it, can form.
To date Gagliano has been among the first discoverers of three other planets.
His success as a sifter of data broadcast over the Internet is not limited to the discovery of nearby planets. Over the last two years he has also been credited with discovering 150 supernovae, exploding stars in distant galaxies, more than anyone else on Earth.
Lately he has also been searching for comets, but has yet to be the first to see one.
"Often its pure luck. It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time," he says of his discoveries,."It also helps to be an insomniac."Like so many good ideas, zooniverse.com began over a beer. A few pints of English ale to be exact, in a pub not far from England's Oxford University.
Astronomers Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski were looking for a better way to classify large numbers of galaxies. They decided to turn the work over to the public, expecting to have 1 million galaxies classified within a few years.
On July 12 they launched a site called galaxyzoo.org and sent the word out that they were looking for citizen scientists to help. The response was so overwhelming, the website's server crashed within a matter of hours.
Once the connection was re-established, the classifying of the 1 million galaxies was completed in a matter of hours.
It was not the birth of citizen science, but the notion that the general public and the "wisdom of crowds" could do the work of science grew exponentially with the launching of the site.
Over the years, galaxyzoo.org evolved into zooniverse.org, and the list of projects being carried out on the site by "normal every day people" has grown exponentially.
Today, by signing onto the website, anyone can participate in science projects that are discovering how stars form, looking for planets, helping model the earth's climate or assisting researchers trying to understand what whales are saying.
Visit www.zooniverse.org to create a user name and password, and join over 100,000 people worldwide in the joy of discovery.
-- By Steve Ayers