Darcy Wenn

NASA Citizen Scientist


ELTHAM College, Melbourne, Victoria

Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria

Astrophysics & International Relations

Darcy Wenn is an undergraduate college student in Victoria, Australia. His passion for astrophotography turned into the first of several peer-reviewed scientific papers, and he’s just getting started.

What motivated you to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist? How did you learn about NASA citizen science?

I was always intrigued by space; but it wasn't until seventh grade when I was fortunate enough to view Saturn and its rings through the telescope at my school observatory. I was hooked. The sight of this distant planet against the inky black was a moving experience, and so, for Christmas in 2017, I got a DSLR camera and started astrophotography.

Capturing deep-space photos allowed me a window into the cosmos where I could grow my understanding of space. At the start of 2020, my high school science teacher encouraged me to participate in a research project on binary star systems to produce a scientific paper.

Through that project, I discovered my passion for astrophysics. After the publication of the paper in January 2021, I was invited by that same science teacher and Michael Fitzgerald of the Las Cumbres Observatory to undertake a new research paper concerning exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system). This paper, now published on NASA's Exoplanet Watch website, was my first involvement with exoplanets. We began research on candidate exoplanet TOI-2341.01, first discovered by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

While writing our paper, Michael introduced me and the rest of our team to Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project run by NASA aimed at encouraging and enabling anyone to participate in exoplanet science and collecting transit data.

Rob Zellem, project lead of Exoplanet Watch, introduced us to the Exoplanet Transit Interpretation Code (EXOTIC) and helped us set up and run the code for our transit data. He and the rest of the Exoplanet Watch team were able to give us crucial insight and pointers that would help massively in the production of our paper.

Being involved with the Exoplanet Watch community throughout writing our paper was an incredible opportunity. I got to experience first-hand how citizen science brings together people from professional and amateur backgrounds in the pursuit of a common goal. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. So in late 2022, I joined Exoplanet Watch. I want to contribute to NASA's science goals and support budding astronomers just as I was supported when I first began.

What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies.

I'm about to begin my undergraduate studies majoring in astrophysics and international relations. I'm super excited to continue to grow my expertise and strengths in both fields. While I've had incredible opportunities in high school to extend myself in these areas, university will present new prospects that I'm excited to discover.

When I'm not studying you might find me on the roof of my house at late hours of the night imaging deep space nebulae and galaxies with my portable astrophotography setup. The rig is a DSLR camera, a star tracker, a tripod and my laptop.

Darcy Wenn's portable astrophotography setup imaging the Orion Nebula.

There's something so breathtaking and personal about being out under the stars and seeing meteors burn up overhead, the Moon rising in the silent early hours of the morning or the faint gas clouds of the Milky Way in the freezing months of winter. If I'm not outside working on my latest imaging project, you'll probably find me working my part-time job, playing games with my mates, using my flight simulator, or in the gym.

What have you learned about the process of science from your time on NASA citizen science projects?

Science is hard, and peer review is important. Throughout the writing of my second paper on TOI-2341.01, our team changed our conclusions on the planetary candidate several times as we collected new datasets and gained insight and input from various other members of the Exoplanet Watch team.

You need to be ready to challenge your preconceived notions about what you're investigating because it's likely that your initial conclusions might be slightly off or wrong altogether. But I also learned science is extremely rewarding. Being able to stand up for your work and solidify your conclusions as much as current data and science allows is a feeling like no other.

Which peer-reviewed research publications have you contributed to through your citizen science work? What was your role in the research and writing process?

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to co-author two scientific papers with other citizen scientists and professional astronomers and astrophysicists.

I was the lead author of the first of the two papers, "Astrometric Measurement of WDS 02462-5403 A and B", which was written as part of the Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InSTAR) seminar and published in the Journal of Double Star Observations (JDSO) in January 2021.

The paper investigated the properties of the suspected binary star system WDS 02462-5403 and presented evidence for the idea that the system may not be a physical double.

While this paper is not a NASA citizen science project, it was crucial to me in developing my skills and was my stepping-off point into scientific paper production which led me to my second publication.

An artist's impression of candidate exoplanet TOI-2341.01 that was the subject of my second research paper as part of Exoplanet Watch.

"Toward the Confirmation of an Ultra-Short Period Hot Jupiter "Puffy Planet" with a Near Grazing Transit, TOI-2341.01" was our second paper where I was again lead author, and my team and I were formally introduced to NASA citizen science through Exoplanet Watch. This paper saw us travel to the U.S. to present at the Robotic Telescopes, Student Research and Education (RTSRE) Conference in Santa Barbara. Therewe met several members of the Exoplanet Watch team, including project lead Rob Zellem.

The paper investigated the nature of TOI-2341.01 and presented 24 light curves and refined planetary parameters of the suspected Hot Jupiter, building towards its confirmation as a true planet. It was also suggested that TOI-2341.01 is a 'Puffy Planet' due to its low density and large radius, and 'near-grazing,' as the data suggested it doesn't fully occlude its parent star. In November 2022 it was published in the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers and hosted on NASA's Exoplanet Watch website.

What are your favorite NASA citizen science projects to work on, and why?

Exoplanet Watch is by far my favorite citizen science project to work on. Being able to accumulate, reduce, and report on data that you can call your own is rewarding. Being able to be part of a team to assist in research efforts is especially rewarding. Exoplanet science has definitely become one of my favorite fields of astronomy due to the endless possibilities of what lies waiting for us around alien suns. We've already found tantalizing possibilities like "Hot Jupiters", water worlds, planets with ring systems that are magnitudes larger than Saturn's and worlds where the clouds are made of molten iron. It's an exciting time to be part of exoplanet research.

What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?

That science is truly accessible to anyone. There are multitudes of different people with diverse levels of expertise contributing to the various NASA citizen science programs. It's incredible how diverse the backgrounds are in terms of skill set, and yet we are all doing practical and beneficial science towards NASA's mission goals. When I was in Santa Barbara in June 2022 for the RTSRE Conference, my coach for my first paper, Rachel Freed, said, "You're doing real science that's leading to a greater understanding and publications. You are a scientist." That stuck with me and has made me realize that anyone can be a scientist. That's what makes NASA citizen science so incredible; it gives anyone the power to make a difference and fundamentally contribute to science.

What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA citizen science?

Get involved! There are a myriad of citizen science projects available on NASA's website; look through them and see which one piques your interest. If you change your mind, you can try another or even all of them. And who knows, you might find your new passion or even a potential career path.

Who have you met during your NASA citizen science work who inspires you?

Rob Zellem has been a big inspiration to me throughout my time at Exoplanet Watch and the production of my second research paper. His passion for exoplanet science and making it as accessible as possible, and his dedication to helping myself and the rest of our team throughout our efforts with EXOTIC and our paper meant a great deal to me. I'm incredibly grateful for all of the support he's provided me, and everyone at Exoplanet Watch.

The Orion Nebula imaged in HaRGB.

Visit the complete collection of NASA citizen science projects and start contributing today!

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.