SETI Alumni: Portrait of Sarah Blunt

SETI Institute GPI group from left to right: Eric Nielsen, Franck Marchis, Jasmine Garani, Sarah Blunt, and Clement Chalumeau
SETI Institute GPI group from left to right: Eric Nielsen, Franck Marchis, Jasmine Garani, Sarah Blunt, and Clement Chalumeau (credit: F. Marchis/SETI Institute)

Sarah Blunt, REU student class of 2015, is today a full member of the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey. Together with SETI researcher Eric Nielsen and Franck Marchis, she has developed an innovative method to fit the orbits of directly imaged exoplanets. She has published her work in Astronomical Journal and is a recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that will fund her graduate school. Here her story.

Let’s be careful about this “SETI” signal

August 31: See update at the end of this post

Several readers have contacted me recently about reports that a group of international astronomers have detected a strong signal coming from a distant star that could be a sign of a high-technology civilization. Here’s my reaction: it’s interesting, but it’s definitely not the sign of an alien civilization—at least not yet.

Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact"
Jodie Foster in the movie “Contact”

Here’s why:

The Next Step in Exoplanetary Science: Imaging New Worlds

In 2003, I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of astronomers that met at the University of California at Berkeley to brainstorm on an innovative idea: the design of an instrument to image and characterize planets around other stars, called exoplanets, using a telescope in the 8 – 10 meter class. A decade later, such an instrument became reality with the arrival of the Gemini Planet Imager (called also GPI, or “Gee-pie”) instrument at the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Five known planetary systems imaged with current adaptive optics systems. Fomalhaut shown on the top-right is the only system detected with the Hubble Space Telescope. HR8799 discovery was announced in a Science article in 2008 by a team led by C. Marois including members of the GPI team (credit: C. Marois).
Five known planetary systems imaged with current adaptive optics systems. Fomalhaut shown on the top-right is the only system detected with the Hubble Space Telescope. HR8799 discovery was announced in a Science article in 2008 by a team led by C. Marois including members of the GPI team (credit: C. Marois).

Fate of Planetary Habitability highlighted at the AGU Fall Meeting

Together with Cynthia Phillips, one of my SETI Institute colleagues, I will convene a session at the AGU Fall meeting tomorrow afternoon (oral) and Friday December 13 (poster) entitled “Rapid Environmental Change and the Fate of Planetary Habitability“.

This session will be an opportunity to see recent works on the adaptability of life in abrupt climate crises. Recent discoveries inspire us to re-examine our understanding of how rapidly planetary habitats can be redistributed. Past habitable environments on Mars from the Curiosity rover, possible subsurface lakes on Europa, and potentially habitable exoplanets from the Kepler spacecraft continue to expand our definition of the habitable zone.

slide_frontThe submitted abstracts intertwined aspects of changing habitability, including the complex interactions among astronomical, geological, and climatic forces, on the Earth and beyond.

Featuring the Women Of Science #WomenOfScience

Today I would like to share with you an idea for the International Women’s day on March 8 2013.  If you work in an institution, university, or non-profit related to science, have you taken note of the number of women around you? In astronomy and planetary science, it is not too bad even if it is not perfect, but some “hard” science groups, like physics or computer science, clearly have a low proportion of women in their ranks. I will not elaborate on the reasons for such lack of representation; instead, I propose to focus on the bright side.

Kepler is Sick and Resting: “Mountain View, we have a problem”

“Mountain View, we have a problem…”
NASA Kepler Manager at NASA Ames, Mountain View announced today that they interrupted the science operation of the spacecraft, due an issue with one of the reaction wheels.  Kepler is equipped with four reaction wheels which are used to accurately point the telescope. One failed in July 2012 and today the team announced that they detected issues with a second one. Kepler needs three reaction wheels to be used properly, if this one fails the mission is most likely over. That’s not good news.

AGU Fall Meeting 2012 – Planetary Evolution and the Fate of Planetary Habitability

Tomorrow is the first day of the AGU Fall Meeting, in San Francisco, CA. I love this conference, not only because it is 30 min door-to-door from my house, but also because it is BIG… Last year there were ~27,000 registered geoscientists, and there is no reason there should be less of them this year. With more than 29 parallel sessions in diverse  topics such as Atmospheric Sciences, Hydrology, Natural Hazards, Biosphere, Volcanology, Cryosphere, Education and of course Planetary Sciences, plus several social events, and press conferences, it will be a feast for scientists, science reporters and the public.