Lectures and Special Events

Searching for the Nearest Alien Worlds with a Starshade

November 6, 2014

Starshade 2014

In just over two decades, humanity has gone from detecting its first planet beyond our solar system to finding thousands of these objects orbiting other stars.  But we know precious little about most of them, beyond their sizes and locations in the galaxy..  What are all these exoplanets made of?  Do they have atmospheres, weather, seasons, oceans, continents?  Our inability to address these questions stems from the fact that current detection methods do not “see” planets themselves but rather rely on the effects they induce on their star and its light.  

In this talk astronomers Maggie Turnbull Aki Roberge and Stuart Shaklan will describe an innovative design for a space-based observatory to find answers to our questions about exoplanets. The observatory would consist of a telescope plus “starshade,” which would separate the faint specks of planet light from the glare of their parent stars, and begin probing mysteries related to exoplanets’ chemistry, structure, and potential for harboring life.


Starshade Turbull

Maggie “good cop” Turnbull
Dr. Turnbull is an astrobiologist whose expertise is in identifying star and planetary systems that are capable of supporting life as we know it. She developed a Catalog of Habitable Stellar Systems for use in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and she has studied the spectrum of the Earth to identify telltale signatures of life.  In 2008 she started her own non-profit organization to promote space and earth science in northern Wisconsin and carry out local projects for economic and environmental sustainability.  She lead the science team for the New Worlds Observer, a flagship class concept for a space telescope plus starshade observatory to find and characterize Earth-like exoplanets, for which the final study was published in 2012.  When not thinking about starshades and life on other worlds, she can be found cross country skiing, keeping honeybees, and tapping sugar maples in the north woods.

Starshade Roberge

Aki “bad cop” Roberge
Dr. Aki Roberge wears two hats as a Research Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. With one hat on, she uses telescopes like NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to understand the birth of planets. She observes the gas and dust in disks around nearby young stars, the building blocks for new planets and their atmospheres. While wearing the other hat, she works on the early stages of mission conception, focusing on new questions about exoplanets and planet formation. Recently, she led the exoplanets chapter of NASA’s 2013 Astrophysics Roadmap “Enduring Quests, Daring Visions”, an ambitious, science-driven 30-year vision for the future of NASA Astrophysics. Her primary role in the EXO-S study is to help plan the observing strategy, estimate the science return from different versions of the mission design, and to keep people from getting too optimistic!

Starshade Shaklan

Stuart “save the day” Shaklan
Stuart Shaklan earned a B.S. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 1985 and a Ph.D. in Optical Sciences from the UA in 1989. He has been with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1991, and has worked in the fields of long baseline interferometry, high-precision metrology, astrometry, and high-contrast imaging. He is presently the supervisor of the High Contrast Imaging group at JPL and is the lead optical engineer on the Starshade study.

Other team members who hope to be there:

Sara Seager (Exo-S STDT chair)
Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist exploring the possibility of life throughout the galaxy. Adapting the principles of existing planetary science to the study of exoplanets (planets outside the solar system), she is quickly advancing a subfield initially viewed with skepticism by the scientific community. A mere hypothesis until the mid-1990s, nearly 900 exoplanets in more than 600 planetary systems have since been identified, with thousands of more planet candidates known. 

While continuing to create and refine theoretical models of exoplanet atmospheres and interiors, she is also spearheading advanced hardware design and space mission projects, including ExoplanetSat, a university collaboration to build low-cost “nano-satellites” to observe planetary transits. ExoplanetSat is a new concept for space science: a fleet of dozens of cheap copies of an ultra-small space telescope that will open up a new avenue for wide-ranging space exploration. A visionary scientist contributing importantly in every aspect of her field, Seager is finding new celestial frontiers and fueling curiosity about life in worlds beyond our reach. - See more at: http://www.macfound.org/fellows/903/#sthash.GLqIeFNh.dpuf

Shawn Goldman
Shawn Domagal-Goldman is currently a Research Space Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. His research is on exoplanet characterization lessons from the “pale orange dot” that was the Archean Earth. You can also find him blogging about baseball stats and the woe of being a Cubs fan at Bleed Cubbie Blue. 

Marc Kuchner
Marc Kuchner is an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). Together with Wesley Traub, he invented the band-limited coronagraph, a planet-finding tool to be used on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the WFIRST telescope.  An expert on exoplanets and debris disks, Kuchner helped popularize the ideas of ocean planets, carbon planets, and Helium planets and and he now serves as the Principal Investigator of the popular citizen science website DiskDetective.org

Mark Thomson
Mr. Thomson has been developing large deployable structures and mechanisms for space for 32 years.  He has invented and led the development of ten deployable antennas with aperture diameters of 9-15 meters; At JPL he is currently developing the main antennas for three of NASA's upcoming Earth Science satellites.  Mark is the inventor of the 34 meter diameter Starshade he is also developing at JPL with his exoplanet colleagues. His role is to advise the STDT of Starshade capabilities, performance, cost and the trade-offs associated with the different spacecraft and mission configurations that are being considered. 

Bill Sparks
Dr. Bill Sparks is an astronomer who has been at the Space Telescope Science Institute since his early days as a postdoc in 1986. He is a currently the deputy division head for the Instruments Division and is a member of the Advanced Camera for Surveys Instrument Definition Team (ACS IDT).  His scientific interests include characteristics of radio galaxies and jets, X-ray emission in galaxy clusters, and astrobiology.