We’ve written here before about some of the exciting research coming out of the Kepler Space Telescope program and its work in identifying extra-solar planets. But there is another aspect to this story which will be of interest to those looking to cut costs at every opportunity. NASA has opened up the research project to interested volunteers who want to help analyze the data from home. (And at no cost to the taxpayer.) Called the Planet Hunters Project, it’s been in operation for several months now and is already paying dividends. In fact, amateurs have already located two planets which were missed by Kepler in the first sweep.

Ordinary folks surfing the Web have helped spot two alien planet candidates, a new study reveals.

Neither potential planet is thought to be habitable, though one looks to be a rocky world just 2-1/2 times more massive than Earth, researchers said. The other one appears to be about eight times the mass of of Earth.

Citizen scientists working via the online Planet Hunters project discovered the two candidates in data gathered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. While the potential planets still need to be confirmed by follow-up observations, researchers said they’re most likely the real deal.

“This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars,” Yale astronomer Debra Fischer, who helped launch the Planet Hunters project, said in a statement.

Amateur astronomers are probably one of the most numerous and motivated collections of geeks you’re likely to find, and this isn’t the first time that NASA has harnessed them as a resource. As we’ve covered here before, SETI at Home has been using the home computers of volunteers to process radio telescope data “listening” for ET for years, and the Galaxy Zoo Project has allowed home based astronomers to help sort through and categorize a million galaxies across the universe by size and shape.

Obviously you can’t shop out all – or even a significant portion – of the hardware work and initial development to amateurs, but there is a lot of data management which they can do. And they eagerly sign on to do it, so why waste money and leave a ready made resource such as this idle? Plus, there’s the obvious additional benefit of getting more young people interested in science and technology, perhaps nudging them toward a good education and jobs later in life.

Fun stuff. And let’s face it… you know they’re going to wind up naming these planets after the amateurs who found them. How cool would that be?