Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Scientists line up for NASA's planet-hunting mission
Posted: November 29, 2000

An artist's concept of SIM spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL
NASA has selected a science team for the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), an innovative space system that will hunt for Earth-sized planets around other stars and provide new insights into the origin and evolution of our galaxy.

Scheduled for launch in 2009, SIM will also precisely measure the locations and distances of stars throughout our Milky Way Galaxy, and study other celestial objects. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

SIM is part of NASA's Origins Program, a series of missions that will help us answer two fundamental questions: How did we get here? Are we alone? The newly selected team consists of 10 principal investigators leading key science teams, and five mission specialists.

Discovery of Planetary Systems: Dr. Geoffrey W. Marcy, University of California, Berkeley
--A search for new planets around nearby stars, which also will study the stars where scientists currently think planets have been found.

Extrasolar Planets Interferometric Survey: Dr. Michael Shao, JPL
--A search for planets using a large sample of stars. This study addresses one of SIM's primary science goals: taking a census of planetary systems around nearby stars.

The Search for Young Planetary Systems and the Evolution of Young Stars: Dr. Charles A. Beichman, JPL
--A study of the early stages of the formation of planetary systems around young stars that will provide new insight into how planets like Earth might have formed.

Stellar, Remnant, Planetary, and Dark-Object Masses from Astrometric Micro-lensing: Dr. Andrew P. Gould, Ohio State University, Columbus
--A novel technique of micro-lensing will be used to make exceptionally precise measurements of the masses of stars and a variety of other astronomical sources. Micro-lensing involves changes to a star's appearance that occur due to gravity from a nearby object.

Space Interferometry Mission: Dynamical Observations of Galaxies Key Project: Dr. Edward J. Shaya, Raytheon ITSS Corporation
--By determining the precise distances and motion of nearby galaxies, this scientific program will study the formation of the local group of galaxies.

Astrophysics of Reference Frame Tie Objects: Dr. Kenneth J. Johnston, U.S. Naval Observatory
--This program will obtain the data required to determine the motion of the Milky Way relative to extremely distant extra-galactic sources.

Anchoring the Population II Distances and Ages of Globular Clusters: Dr. Brian C. Chaboyer, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.
--This program will make observations to determine the ages and distances of globular clusters which are needed to determine the age of the universe.

A MASSIF Effort to Determine the Mass-Luminosity Relation for Stars of Various Ages, Metallicities and Evolutionary States: Dr. Todd J. Henry, Georgia State University, Atlanta
--Determine to an accuracy of one percent the mass of 100 main sequence stars and a special sample of 100 additional field stars. The improved mass-luminosity relation derived from this work would impact many fields of astrophysics and could be one of the major accomplishments of the SIM mission.

Taking the Measure of the Milky Way: Dr. Steven R. Majewski, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
--A study of the motion of stars in our galaxy to determine the forces that cause the motion to understand better the distribution of matter in the Milky Way.

Binary Black Holes, Accretion Disks and Relativistic Jets: Photocenters of Nearby Active Galactic Nuclei and Quasars: Dr. Ann E. Wehrle, JPL
--A study of possible motions and changes in active galactic nucleii and quasars. The data will provide new and unique insight into the physical processes in these sources.

The mission scientists selected for the SIM science team are:

  • Education and Public Outreach Scientist: Dr. Guy P. Worthey, St. Ambrose College, Davenport, Iowa
  • Data Scientist: Dr. Andreas Quirrenbach, University of California, San Diego
  • Instrument Scientist: Dr. Stuart Shaklan, JPL
  • Interdisciplinary Scientist: Dr. Shrinivas R. Kulkarni, California Institute of Technology
  • Imaging and Nulling Scientist: Dr. Ronald J. Allen, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

SIM will be placed into an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun. Light gathered by its multiple telescopes will be combined and processed to yield information that could normally be obtained only with a much larger telescope. SIM will also search for planets beyond our solar system. A critical part of the SIM mission will be to identify potential observing targets for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which will image planetary systems around other stars and look for chemical signatures that indicate a planet could sustain life.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages SIM and Terrestrial Planet Finder for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.