Beyond Vassar

Hello Out There?

By Larry Hertz

For decades, the search for signs of life outside our solar system was the stuff of science fiction, the province of Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. But recently—and quite suddenly—astronomers have found hundreds of planets orbiting stars throughout our galaxy. Two recent Vassar grads, Avi Mandell ’99 and Scott Fleming ’05, are members of teams of scientists hunting down these “exoplanets” with some of the most powerful and sophisticated telescopes ever made.

Avi Mandell ’99 outside the room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being built at Goddard Space Center in Washington, DC.
Avi Mandell ’99 outside the room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being built at Goddard Space Center in Washington, DC.

Mandell, who received his PhD in astrophysics from Penn State University, is a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Washington, DC. Fleming, who earned a doctorate in astronomy at the University of Florida in 2011, joined the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD, in December. Both say they are excited to be on the front lines of new discoveries being made almost every day.

Two NASA projects, the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes, spawned many of these discoveries. The first exoplanet wasn’t found until 1995, five years after the Hubble was launched into space. The Kepler was deployed in 2009, and it has enabled astronomers to find hundreds of new exoplanets throughout the Milky Way galaxy, including Kepler-22b, the first known exoplanet to be orbiting the habitable zone of a sun-like star, about 600 light years from the earth.

“There’s a fire hose of information coming at us. It’s hard to portray how fluid the landscape is in the field these days,” Mandell says.

Some of that new information is contradicting long-held assumptions. For example, Mandell says, most astronomers believed smaller planets would have orbits near their suns and larger ones would be farther away, as is the case with our solar system. “The very first system we found completely violated that so-called rule,” Mandell says. “It appears that early in the formation of solar systems, planets migrate quite a bit.”

Scott Fleming ’05 at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Scott Fleming ’05 at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Fleming is part of a team of archivists at STScI whose job is to analyze and archive data from NASA missions, including the deployment of the Kepler and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), a telescope launched in 2003. Kepler is chiefly searching for exoplanets, while GALEX is gathering data on star formation over the past 10 billion years. “Our job is to take all this data and figure out the best ways to make it available to other scientists,” Fleming says. “This means we have to keep up with not only the advances in science but also the information technology and analysis tools so we can deliver packages of information other scientists can use,” he says.

Fleming says his training for his job began at Vassar, where he double-majored in physics and astronomy and minored in computer science. He did internships at STScI while at Vassar, “but I certainly had no idea I’d come back.”

Mandell and Fleming both say they’re looking forward to the planned 2018 launch of the most powerful telescope ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will orbit the sun about a million miles from the earth. Funding for the $8 billion project has been approved, and the telescope is currently being assembled at the Goddard Space Center, not far from Mandell’s office. He says he hopes some of the data that will be gathered through JWST will solve some of the mysteries surrounding exoplanets. “Some of these planets have little or no water; some have a very exotic chemistry with no oxygen at all,” Mandell says. “The minute you start looking at them, you see things you’ve never seen before.”

Fleming agrees the questions about life outside our solar system are only just beginning to be answered. “Launching the JWST will open a new era in space exploration,” he says. “In terms of clarity, it’s about 10 times better than the Hubble, and it will spur another quantum leap in astrophysics. We’ll be seeing stars and galaxies we never observed before, and we’ll be able to analyze the atmospheres of the new exoplanets we’ve found.”