Interview: Exoplanets/Proxima b with NASA Goddard’s Dr. Padi Boyd
Besides our Moon, many casual observers look up and think there are only stars in the distant night sky. Some are surprised when they learn that up to five of those points of light are visible planets within our own solar system, depending on your location, day or time (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
But it doesn’t end there. Far beyond our own eyesight, there are planets that orbit stars outside our solar system, called exoplanets. Astronomers have been working hard for years to detect these distant bodies with amazing technology from both ground-based and space telescopes, and new missions will further advance our knowledge in the years to come.
Since my Jan. 30, 2016 visit to NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland for the James Webb Space Telescope “Mirror Media Event” (link to my photo album), I’ve been in contact with team members from the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) program, scheduled for mission launch in December 2017.
I exchanged emails with NASA Goddard’s Dr. Patricia (Padi) Boyd regarding her thoughts about August 24’s announcement from the European Southern Observatory and their Pale Red Dot campaign that discovered the exoplanet “Proxima b” orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. While it’s not the first exoplanet discovered, it’s the closest one found so far at 4.2 light-years away (1.3 parsecs, 40 trillion km, or 25 trillion miles).
Marty: What are your thoughts on the implications of finding Proxima b?
Dr. Boyd: “I’m excited to know it’s there, but I’m not very surprised. The incredibly successful Kepler mission has shown us that planets are common around stars, and that one in five stars probably host a planet like Earth, so the odds weren’t too bad. Now that we’ve found one so close, many astronomers will focus on detailed follow-up observations of our new next door neighbor. I think we’ll see some innovative new mission concepts popping up to characterize this planet—what’s it really like there? And it also lends even more confidence that TESS will discover a bounty of transiting planets around nearby stars—the ideal candidates for follow-up observations, to probe their atmospheres for signs of water and other biomarkers, with more powerful telescopes like the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.”
Marty: Do you think this adds extra positive attention to TESS’s mission?
Dr. Boyd: “I think finding a potentially small planet just one star over is like having a sneak preview for TESS. TESS is designed to find transiting planets around nearby stars by performing an all-sky survey. Because of telescope observations, you can point to the bright star Alpha Centauri and say ‘even though we see only one star, we know it is actually a triple system, and that the star closest to us, Proxima Centauri, hosts a planet that may not be very much bigger than the Earth.’ When the TESS data starts rolling in, you’ll be able to point to many stars in the sky and say ‘that one has a planet. And that one. And that one…“
WOW. If that doesn’t blow your mind this Friday, I’m not sure what will. -Marty
More about the NASA TESS mission:
“The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is an Explorer-class planet finder. In the first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey, TESS will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, orbiting a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. The principal goal of the TESS mission is to detect small planets with bright host stars in the solar neighborhood, so that detailed characterizations of the planets and their atmospheres can be performed.
TESS will monitor the brightnesses of more than 200,000 stars during a two year mission, searching for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. Transits occur when a planet’s orbit carries it directly in front of its parent star as viewed from Earth. TESS is expected to catalog more than 1,500 transiting exoplanet candidates, including a sample of ∼500 Earth-sized and ‘Super Earth’ planets, with radii less than twice that of the Earth. TESS will detect small rock-and-ice planets orbiting a diverse range of stellar types and covering a wide span of orbital periods, including rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars.” (Source)
NASA Bio: Dr. Patricia Boyd
TESS Guest Investigator Program Lead
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)
“Dr. Patricia Boyd is the Associate Director, Astrophysics Science Division and Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Deputy Project Scientist for Operations. For the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), Dr. Boyd is the lead for the TESS Guest Investigator Program. Dr. Boyd received her undergraduate degree from Villanova University in astronomy and astrophysics. She obtained an M.Sc. in physics and atmospheric science and a Ph.D. in physics and atmospheric science both from Drexel University.
Over twenty years of experience at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, applying traditional and novel time series analysis and spectral analysis techniques to space science data from a variety of platforms including HST, International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), Swift and Kepler, with an emphasis on the variability and dynamics of accreting compact objects, while being an effective manager and team leader of guest observer facilities, software development efforts and student programs. Dr. Boyd has authored over 60 publications.”
Marty McGuire is an amateur astronomer and space enthusiast in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and founder of BackyardAstronomyGuy.com.
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