From UC Santa Cruz : “Postdoctoral fellowships support planetary science research”

From UC Santa Cruz

March 31, 2021
Tim Stephens

The Heising-Simons Foundation has awarded 51 Pegasi b Fellowships to Emily Martin and Melodie Kao to support their postdoctoral research in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz starting in fall 2021.

Emily Martin

Melodie Kao

Established in 2017, the Heising-Simons Foundation 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a sun-like star. The growing field of planetary astronomy studies objects both within and beyond our solar system, bridging planetary science and astronomy. From improving our understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, to advancing new technologies for detecting other worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make a unique contribution to the field.

In her fellowship, Emily Martin will pioneer a method to directly compare solar system planets to exoplanets using a novel instrument she developed for Lick Observatory, called PEAS (The Planet as Exoplanet Analog Spectrograph). She said she looks forward to creating new technology that assists her peers in pursuing new scientific avenues.

“I love the cooperative spirit behind instrumentation, and that it enables all different kinds of science,” Martin said. “It feels so impactful to contribute to multiple parts of the planetary science field.”

Martin spent six years contributing to the upgrade of the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPEC), which operates out of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. This workhorse instrument gathers broad-ranging data on astrophysical objects including comets, exoplanets, newly forming stars, and some of the most distant galaxies.

“I’ll always value my time spent collaborating with a team to upgrade NIRSPEC. It felt so gratifying to see it all come together after working so hard for so long,” Martin said. She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy at UCLA in 2018 and has since been pursuing postdoctoral research at UC Santa Cruz.

Melodie Kao is developing new strategies to assess the engines that generate the magnetic processes and environments of planet-like objects, and to interpret exoplanet radio detections. As a graduate student, she used radio observations to show that powerful displays of aurora can occur on brown dwarfs—failed stars with magnetic behaviors akin to exoplanets.

“When I first analyzed what became the telltale smudge of an aurora on a free-floating planetary mass object, there was a peculiar experience that became harder and harder to ignore—almost like the reality of what we found was oozing into my consciousness,” she said.

In her fellowship, Kao will further develop radio observations to illuminate the engines that generate magnetic processes in both brown dwarfs and exoplanets. In conjunction, she will investigate their aurorae, as well as the physics occurring in their magnetospheres (the region of space influenced by an object’s magnetic field). Understanding such magnetic behaviors will provide a key missing ingredient for fully characterizing exoplanetary systems.

“When I do science, it’s like tending to a garden,” Kao said. “You nurture the question that alighted in your brain until, one day, the data you’ve collected blooms and offers its secret to you. It always feels like a big responsibility to introduce this knowledge to the world.”

Kao received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology in 2017 and is currently a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University. She will begin her 51 Pegasi b Fellowship appointment at UCSC in fall 2021.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy. The fellowship award provides:

Up to $375,000 of support for independent research over three years.
Time and space to establish distinction and leadership in the field.
Mentorship by an established faculty member at the host institution.
An annual summit to develop professional networks, exchange information and ideas, and foster collaboration.

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California.

See the full article here .


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UCSC Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).

UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).

UC Santa Cruz campus.

The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch).

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument, developed at the Dunlap Institute, U Toronto and brought to UCSD and installed at the Nickel telescope at UCSC (Photo by Laurie Hatch).

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Shelley Wright of UC San Diego, with NIROSETI, developed at Dunlap Institute U Toronto, at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.