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Nittany Lions are not on the moon yet but Penn State leads in NASA exoplanet research | University Park Campus | Penn State | Daily Collegian

For over 20 years, Penn State has been a leader in research and discovery of exoplanets in the science community. Now, scientists at the Center for Exoplanet and Habitable Worlds will provide key contributions to NASA’s direct imaging mission.

According to the its website, the center aims to “discover planets beyond our solar system, to characterize planetary systems and their host stars, and to understand the implications of the abundance of potentially habitable planets for the possibility of life beyond Earth and the origins of our own solar system.”

An exoplanet is a planet that orbits around other stars and is hidden by the bright glare of the stars it orbits, according to NASA’s Space Place website.

A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine notes Penn State will expand its reach in NASA’s mission by providing more key research and manufacturing of special instruments for the mission.

Fabienne Bastien, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics, studies stellar variability with the center.

Bastien teaches a graduate seminar on the importance of the stars and an undergraduate class on stars, galaxies and the universe.

She said she knew her whole life she wanted to study astronomy and encourages students to consider internships and fellowships at a NASA center.


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NASA rocket

A NASA Water Recovery X-ray, built by Penn State students in conjunction with NASA, rocket sits in an apparatus that is part of the assembly process.



Bastien works to help discover which stars are the best ones to hopefully find planets around, which she said is much of the “background work” in the center’s research.

“[We are] giving the perspective of what exoplanet hunters should be looking for in terms of finding planets,” Bastien said.

Bastien said her research focuses on finding an exoplanet than is true to Earth’s characteristics. So far, she hasn’t been successful since the stars’ brightness gets in the way.

Alex Wolszczan, founding director of the center, discovered the first exoplanets outside of our solar system in 1992, according to a press release.

“The center started from nothing and grew as a U.S. and international powerhouse,” Wolszczan said.

While Wolszczan recently stepped down as the director, he had helped in the development of spectrographs for discovering new planets, education of exoplanet research and investigation since the first Penn State exoplanet search in 2004.

“My role is most historical,” Wolszczan said. “I am a lucky guy contributing to getting [the center] started.”

Wolszczan said he is proud of what the center has done and hopes for enough funding to continue development of the center and gaining “better, flashy achievements.”

Eric Ford, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, helps support students and faculty within the center as they conduct research to discover exoplanets.

Ford said he is also a part of the Institute for Cyber Science where he analyzes data sets within the exoplanet research.

“NASA has a large committee planning research to come,” Ford said. “[We are] able to make important contributions to the future research through a decade of effort and state of the art instruments.”

Spectrographs and telescopes such as MINERVA, HPF and NEID, created in conjunction with Penn State, can be used to gather exoplanet research to be used worldwide.


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NASA Rocket

A NASA Water Recovery X-ray rocket, built by Penn State students in conjunction with NASA, sits on a launchpad.



Ford said his favorite part of the center is looking at data to learn about planet configurations and differences from Earth’s solar system.

He also mentioned the development of a telescope the center had commissioned to Texas, spectrographs being built and helping students succeed in research.

According to a press release, Penn State’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope is one of the world’s largest optical telescopes and is essential in finding exoplanets. Ford noted there’s much to look forward to within the center’s research.

“It’s an exciting time to be at Penn State in the department of astronomy and astrophysics,” Ford said.

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