Princeton scientists design telescope for NASA contest
Posted: April 22, 2001

An artist's concept of what planet finder mission might look like. Photo: NASA/JPL
It is possible that human beings are only a decade away from finding out whether or not it is alone in the Universe, and Princeton University is playing a large role in this potential discovery.

A group of six University faculty members, three graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow has teamed up with scientists from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. and Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo. to form one of four teams in a NASA-run competition.

To participate in the competition, all four groups are required to design and create a $1 billion telescope to study and potentially discover planets orbiting distant stars. The NASA mission is scheduled to begin the launching of the winning telescope as early as 2012.

Assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Jeremy Kasdin is leading the University's team, which has made several advances in its work since they began working last summer. Kasdin said he became involved in the project a year and a half ago, just a few months after coming to Princeton.

Kasdin explained that the main purpose of NASA's mission is to gather as much information as possible to find the best way to find an earth-like planet and "to gather information on whether or not it could potentially harbor life."

Kasdin also participated in a NASA space project at Stanford University and discovered his current project on NASA's website.

"NASA made it very clear that it wanted industry teamed up with academia in this mission," he said.

Princeton is not the only university bringing academia to the partnership. The other universities involved include the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to Kasdin.

However, the University has made some very significant steps toward completing NASA's mission. The major breakthrough of Princeton's team is "a very unique telescope design that nobody has done before," said Kasdin.

Nicknamed "The Pupil," the telescope was designed by University astrophysics professor David Spergel. Spergel was unavailable for comment.

Also on the University's team are mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Michael Littman and astrophysics professor Edwin Turner who is in Tokyo. Both were unavailable for comment.

Though Kasdin noted the team members might not all share the same view as to the possibility of other earth-like planets with life forms, he said he believes earthlings may find they actually have extraterrestrial neighbors.

"I lean towards the side of people who believe there is a very high likelihood of the [existence of earthlike planets] out there," he said.

He also noted that some scientists believe it is nearly impossible for another planet to have the same life-promoting qualities that Earth has.

Kasdin also explained that no one has actually seen an earth-like planet through a telescope so it is difficult for any scientist to predict the possibility of alternate life forms. "No one has any idea what to expect," he said.

Nevertheless, the University's team is certainly trying to make a great contribution to science regardless of whether or not an earth-like planet with extraterrestrial life is found.

"There's going to be a lot of different kinds of science done with this," Kasdin said.