NASA has a new planet hunter in space called TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite , and Boston University astronomer Philip Muirhead helped to choose its targets. He assembled a catalog of 70,000 red dwarf stars for the satellite’s cameras to record as they transmit data to a computer aboard the spacecraft.
Muirhead was beyond excited about TESS’ launch last April from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The assistant professor of astronomy at BU’s Institute for Astrophysical Research flew to Florida for the send-off. During an early morning stroll on a neighboring beach, he gazed over to the Kennedy Space Center, where he could see a far-off rocket silhouette. Was that the Falcon 9? Would it go off as planned? Boarding a bus to the viewing site with fellow astronomers, Muirhead says he was filled with anticipation. Then came the bad news: the launch was scrubbed till a later date. As disappointed as he was, Muirhead decided to return to Boston rather then wait for the rescheduled launch. But he continued monitoring TESS’s progress.
Murihead says a typical week in the life of an astronomer involves balancing exoplanet searching with graduate student obligations, and planning telescope time while grading papers. “Astronomy is more fun on atypical days, but the perception that we look through telescopes with eye-pieces every night is a misconception,” says Muirhead, who leads a research team studying properties of stars and planets, especially the underestimated red dwarfs. He is a red dwarf pundit – a seeker of stars smaller than the sun; so faint that they used to get overlooked. To measure them is a challenge, but his calculations have narrowed down the mass, size and age of these distant celestial bodies.
Now it’s apparent that red dwarfs might harbor earth-like planets, offering clues about whether there is life outside our solar system. “The holy grail is evidence for life on a planet other than Earth,” Muirhead says. The Globe spoke with him about the changing role of astronomers.
“When I started at BU, it was just me, and no research group. I did a bunch of telescope time at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Keck Telescopes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which happen to be wonderful places to do professional astronomy. Boston, on the other hand, has a lot of light pollution and atmosphere turbulence because it’s so close to sea level. I gathered a bunch of data, devised some projects and recruited post-docs and Phd students to come to BU and execute those projects. They’ve taken over a lot of my ideas and followed them through. There are so many unanswered questions, and every question creates new questions.
“Astronomers are unique because they have a wide skill set, whether it’s writing complicated algorithms that simulate astronomical phenomenas, doing spectral analysis or finding creative computational solutions. Historically, I’ve worked on hardware, building instruments for telescopes. This led to the discovery of Kepler-42, a system of three planets orbiting a small star. Figuring out this system was a highlight of my career, and I try to recapture that mode of detective work in my current research.
“Determination is equally, if not more important than imagination. Twenty years ago, we needed imagination, because it wasn’t clear whether there were planets out there. But now we know they are there, and it takes real determination to build the telescopes and instruments with the ability to detect them. I’ve decided that as long as I am learning about the universe, I’m doing things correctly. We no longer need to be close to our research telescope but are in a data room looking at a computer screen, observing wavelengths of light that come from an object. Sometimes the light exposure is a fraction of a second; other times it’s an hour long. We take the data and look at brightness of star and see how brightness is changing, trying to measure chemistry by looking at spectrum.
“The more we learn about the universe, the more alone it feels. In our evolution from an earth-centered universe, to a sun-centered universe, to a universe with no center and vast amounts of space in between stars and galaxies, it can feel more and more alone. The discovery of life on another planet would change context dramatically. Science fiction writer Arthur Clarke said, ‘Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine — it is stranger than we can imagine.’ There will be more discoveries within our lifetime, and who knows what they will indicate? Maybe life on another planet or something else, but we have to approach [it] with an open mind, imagination, and with scientific rigor.”