Public Talk

The Search for Inhabited Worlds

February 21, 2018

When: February 21, 2018 7:00PM
Where: Fleischmann Auditorium, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara

Debra Fischer

Yale University

The discovery of exoplanets is a booming field that is changing how we humans perceive our place in space. Twenty-five years ago, our Sun was the only star that was known to host planets. It seemed quite possible that other planets orbiting other stars were rare. However, the slow trickle of exoplanet discoveries in the late 1990's has accelerated and we now know that planets orbit almost every star in our galaxy. Today, we only know about life on one planet in our solar system, leaving many people to conclude that life on other worlds is rare. Our knowledge about life elsewhere will change dramatically in the next twenty-five years with space missions that are currently being designed to detect signatures of life on nearby worlds. This talk will highlight the trajectory and future of exoplanet discoveries.

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Debra Fischer

Debra Fischer is a Professor of Astronomy at Yale University who began hunting for exoplanets in 1997 by measuring Doppler shifts in the spectra of stars. She has discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets with this technique, including the first known multiple planet system in 1999. Dr. Fischer's analysis of stellar spectra demonstrated that gas giant planets were more likely to form around stars with a higher abundance of heavy elements and she quantified the now well-known "planet-metallicity" correlation. She led an international consortium from 2003-2008 to carry out a search for hot Jupiters orbiting metal-rich stars; that project detected more than 30 new extrasolar planets. Some of these planets transit in front of their host stars, enabling a measurement of the radius and mean density of the planets and permitting an observation of the atmosphere with transmission spectroscopy.

In her lab at Yale, Fischer's team is developing next generation instrument designs to break current measurement precision records and detect Earth analogues that will be targets in the search for life on other worlds. Her team has just commissioned EXPRES, an ultra-stable instrument that aims to reach a new level of precision using the Lowell Observatory Discovery Channel Telescope. Dr. Fischer is also the co-chair for the NASA study of LUVOIR, a 12- to 16-m space telescope that is being evaluated as a flagship mission in 2035.

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