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Putting Together the Big Picture in Planet-Finding

July 19, 2007

“I just do it for the pictures,” laughs Dr. David Imel as he points to the myriad posters of stars and galaxies hanging from the walls in his office at Caltech. But the picture Imel wants to see most doesn’t exist yet ““ a pale blue dot orbiting a distant star. Another Earth.

As the manager of the Michelson Science Center at Caltech, Imel coordinates a team of scientists and engineers whose goal is to find the elusive Earthlike planet. He and his team schedule and organize telescope time, process raw data from missions, and organize information about exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system, so that it’s efficient to use, and provide planning and analysis tools to the science community.

Imel didn’t actually plan on getting into this kind of science at all. He graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with a degree in physics and got his doctorate at Caltech while looking for something as elusive as Earthlike planets: neutrino mass. But when he decided to take a job in the radar section at JPL to do something more practical, Imel found himself on a career path that would eventually lead him into exoplanet research.

We caught up with him in his office at Caltech to talk about his work and some of his hobbies.

PlanetQuest: What’s the Michelson Science Center about?

David Imel: It’s the science center for NASA’s planet-finding science program.

PQ: What exactly does the Science Center do?

Imel: We implement science operations for projects such as the Keck Interferometer (a pair of combined 10-meter telescopes atop Mauna Kea) and SIM PlanetQuest, a spaceborne interferometer which will be capable of measuring infinitesimal wobbles of stars due to the planets orbiting them. We accept proposals for observing time on these instruments, put together efficient observing strategies, and collect and process the data.

The Michelson Science Center also has fellowships for grads and postdocs to try to train the next generation of planet-finders.

PQ:How did you get your current job at the Science Center?

Imel: In 2003 I got an e-mail looking for someone to manage an astrophysics science center with an emphasis in interferometry. I’ve always had a romantic interest in astronomy: I’m a stargazer at heart and have taken groups to the mountains to introduce them to a dark night sky and tell them the stories of the constellations. So although I’m not an astronomer, I was very excited about the opportunity to work with astronomers to answer one of the most fundamental questions we have: “Are there other Earths?”

PQ: Do you think that astronomers will find an Earthlike planet within your lifetime?

Imel: Absolutely. I like to think of a saying from the physics world, “If it’s possible, then it does exist.” We just can’t see it yet—it’s an engineering issue. We’ve found planets in places we’ve never expected. It’s just a matter of building instruments with the right sensitivity. It wouldn’t surprise me if we found a planet with organic material ““ with more than a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, the odds seem pretty good that another one exists.

PQ: What do you think the impact of finding an Earthlike planet will have on society?

Imel: Well, the Earth-like planet is the Holy Grail ““ scientists talk about finding the “blue dot.” You have to find out if the composition of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the planet could support life. I think that stepping out and expanding our reach is a major goal for space exploration ““ it’s the next step for society. I think it will really change how we think about the universe and our future.

PQ: Besides science, what else do you like to do with your time?

Imel: I have a ridiculously long list of hobbies which includes things like fencing, rock-climbing, backpacking, sailing, and even knitting.

PQ: Knitting?

Imel: Yes “¦ I find it both intriguing and soothing. I once used a spreadsheet to create a recursive matrix equation for a really complicated pattern ““ that way I didn’t have to remember every stitch. Kind of a funny way to do it, I guess.

PQ: How did you get into backpacking?

Imel: I was invited by a couple of guys at JPL who were a lot more experienced than I. I was amazed at the freedom you feel waking up every morning to go down the trail to the next place; the scenery was gorgeous, and then of course, there was the night sky! My favorite places to backpack include the Eastern Sierras and the Yosemite high backcountry.

PQ: What keeps you excited about your job?

Imel: I think that these are the most interesting questions in astronomy right now ““ whether there are other habitable planets, whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. We may eventually come to a point where we become a multi-planet species, and I think this is the first step down that road.

For more information about NASA’s search for new worlds, visit the PlanetQuest Web site at http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov.




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