Planetary Radio • Feb 26, 2020

The Search for 100 Earths

Please accept marketing-cookies to listen to this podcast.

Download MP3

On This Episode

Fischer debra

Debra Fischer

Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy for Yale University

Joe llama

Joe Llama

Astrophysicist for Lowell Observatory

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Kaplan mat headshot 0114a print

Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Yale astronomer Debra Fischer has spent decades hunting for exoplanets. Now she leads the 100 Earths project that includes the Lowell Observatory and astrophysicist Joe Llama. Debra and Joe join us for a conversation about this search for worlds that could be like our own. There’s big space news in this week’s edition of The Downlink at the top of the show, and Bruce Betts takes us on his weekly tour of the night sky, though it’s the pre-dawn sky that may hold the most wonder. Try your hand at the space trivia contest!

Kepler-186f: A Second Earth
Kepler-186f: A Second Earth The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth.Image: NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech / T. Pyl
Extreme Precision Spectrometer (EXPRES)
Extreme Precision Spectrometer (EXPRES) EXPRES is capable of finding planets about the size of Earth, in the “habitable zone” of stars similar in size, temperature, and age as our own Sun. Designed and built at Yale University, EXPRES is operating at the 4.3-m Lowell Observatory Discovery Telescope in Arizona.Image: Lowell Observatory / Yale University

Related Links

Trivia Contest

This week's prizes:

A Planetary Radio t-shirt from the Planetary Society store AND a Planetary Society r-r-r-rubber asteroid.

This week's question:

What was Rusty Schweickart’s call sign during his EVA on Apollo 9?

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, March 4th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

Which NASA Ranger mission imaged Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon?


The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the February 12 space trivia contest:

Who performed the longest solo spaceflight?


Cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky performed the longest solo spaceflight on Vostok 5 back in 1963. He was up there for nearly 5 days.


Mat Kaplan: [00:00:00] The search for 100 Earths, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Debra Fischer of Yale University has spent decades in the search for exoplanets, often relying on new instruments to help reveal these worlds. Now she's using a spectrometer of unparalleled sensitivity to find earth sized planets that could host liquid water.

Debra is in close partnership with the Lowell Observatory and astrophysicist Joolama. They'll join us in minutes. It's another poetry festival on what's up this week as Bruce Beps leads the search for the human who has spent the most time in space alone.

We're just days away from unveiling the terrific new version of the Down Lake. The Planetary Society's weekly space news [00:01:00] briefing will be enhanced with beautiful space images and cosmic factoids you'll use to amaze your friends, nor at least get them to say, "Huh, I didn't know that." In the meantime, you can still find editorial director Jason Davis's work at including these highlights from the current tradition.

NASA's Mars 2020 Rover has made it to Florida safe and sound. It's now being prepared for the rocket that will carry it to the Red Planet in July or August. Testing of parachutes for the XO Mars 2020 mission that includes the Rosalind Franklin Rover has been delayed. The European space agency lead effort is getting perilously close to the opening of that launch window.

The International Space Station has yet another visitor. This time, it's a sickness cargo spacecraft that arrived with more than three and a half metric tons of supplies, experiments, and new station hardware. It will turn into a garbage truck in May, [00:02:00] hauling trash from the station as it burns up on re-entry.

China's Yutu-2 Rover continues to amaze as it explores the dark side of the moon in its 15th lunar day. Kidding, kidding. That'd be the far side, naturally. We've talked several times about the breakthrough listen initiative. The huge SETI or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project has released two petabytes, that's petabytes of collected data. You citizen scientists out there can help analyze it. Look for the link in the February 21 edition of the downlink at

Debra Fischer was first heard on our show 11 years ago. Back then, only, huh only, only about 300 exoplanets had been discovered and Debra's partnership was responsible for more than half of those discoveries. She had already been on the hunt for many years and she still is as we sail through 2020.

She's [00:03:00] now Eugene Higgins, professor of astronomy at Yale University, where she leads an effort called 100 Earths. It's another partnership. This time, including the famed Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. That's where astronomer and astrophysicist Joe Llama was when the three of us talked a few days ago.

Debra and Joe, welcome to Planetary Radio. Debra, in your case, it's welcome back to Planetary Radio. Joe, very happy to have you join us on the show for the first time.

Joe Llama: Thanks. It's great to be here.

Debra Fischer: Yeah. Great to join you.

Mat Kaplan: Let's start with the key question and I guess all of this, uh, what will, huh, what will lead to the rest of our conversation. Thousands and thousands of exoplanets have now been discovered, not just discovered, but confirmed. Why is it still just such a tiny handful that are earth sized and in the habitable zones around their stars? Debra?

Debra Fischer: Well, every [00:04:00] detection technique it turns out, is biased against detecting planets like the earth. For the radio velocity method that, that we use, the planet is tugging on the star and causing it to orbit a common center of mass. So for the earth, the earth tugs on our sun and causes the sun to move with just a, a puny 10 centimeters per second, and it completes just one orbit in a year.

This is a problem that I would say, for sure, I saw it coming 20 years ago. All my colleagues saw it coming 20 years ago. We thought that we would find planets with the radio velocity method, harvesting the big planets first, and then we would hit a wall with our detection technique and never be able to detect the small earth like planets.

Um, but that's also when some of us began planning for how we could build an instrument that would have the sensitivity [00:05:00] to grasp those really truly earth like planets.

Mat Kaplan: It sounds like you've said that the folks using the transiting method that they've run up against the same, I hate to call it a wall, but I guess I will.

Debra Fischer: I'm going to also let Joe in on this, but I, I that the bias with the transit technique is that the probability of finding a transit falls off linearly with distance from the star. So planets that are close to their host stars are possible to detect. And if you have extremely high photometric precision as the Kepler mission did, then you can detect earth sized planets but in very close orbits.

Finding a true analog of earth that might have liquid water on its surface is just, it's an improbable transit.

Joe Llama: That's right. Just as Debra said, the reason, you know, Kepler found thousands of planet candidates, but the likelihood of finding an earth at one AAU from this, from a [00:06:00] style, the size of our sun is just so unlikely, then it's really not that surprising that Kepler didn't do that. I think why missions like Kepler really shine are finding low mass planets around low mass stars.

So finding earth size planets in shorter orbits around low mass stars, which then could potentially be in the habitable zone.

Mat Kaplan: So that would seem to fit the world that we were just talking about the, on this show two or three weeks ago. TOI 700D, it's small, but so is it star and it is pretty close.

Joe Llama: That's right. And so planets like that were really the forte of missions like Kepler and now the task mission as well. And so expect to see many more planets like that coming out of the task mission.

Mat Kaplan: Let's, um, start talking about what you said you began to think about 20 years ago, you and colleagues, is the result of that thinking, the work that is underway now on the so-called X-Press spectrometer.

Debra Fischer: Yes, it is indeed. We started wondering what was limiting [00:07:00] our precision? And we knew that we had a lot of things that we could control, and there are things that are beyond our control as well. But let's start with the things that we can control. We can control the instrument, we can build an instrument that is much more stable.

Um, and part of the work that I did actually with help from Planetary, uh, Society about 10 years ago, starting about 10 years ago.

Mat Kaplan: I remember it well.

Debra Fischer: Yeah, fiber optic feeds to the spectrograph, the fiber optic cables will scramble the light that's coming in so that we have this beautifully smooth illumination of the spectrograph, and that was a giant step forward. The other giant step forward was the, the evolution of devices called Laser Frequency Combs.

And these are fundamentally tied to, you know, measurements using global positioning satellites to give us a, a precision in the wavelength calibration that has just never been seen before. A [00:08:00] few of these big advances, technical advances have really allowed us to drill down the precision.

And now with express, we're able to measure a precision with our instrument, that is something like four or five centimeters per second.

Mat Kaplan: Oh my God. [laughs] I just, I've heard these kinds of figures before, but they blow me away.

Debra Fischer: Yeah, me too. [laughs].

Joe Llama: It's truly amazing.

Mat Kaplan: Joe, you're newer to this field than Debra, but it sounds like you're just as fascinated. Are you, [laughs] yeah, I guess you just said that you are also amazed by the precision that has been achieved that, that you still hope to improve on, uh, in the coming years.

Joe Llama: Oh, absolutely. You know, everyone always asks astronomers, you know, how do you get your head around the sense of scales and things in the, in the solar system and in the universe and you know, and Deborah just says very casually there that we're measuring five to 10 centimeters per second.

I can't get my head around that. We have a star that's [00:09:00] so far away and we're able to measure it so precisely. It's truly amazing, and I'm really fortunate to be involved at this point. I think it's just, it's, it's so cool.

Mat Kaplan: If you were to, uh, express that in terms of wavelength, since that's what you're looking at, right? It's a spectrometer and you're looking at this tiny change in the wavelength of the light coming from the star. It's a Doppler thing, right? How, how much of a change are we talking about in wavelength?

Debra Fischer: I think [inaudible 00:09:31] to, uh, 500, let's see. In terms of the pixel shift, it's about one, 1000th of a pixel. In terms of wavelength. Let's see, I have to work that out. So it's Delta Lambda, is equal to Lambda times the oversea. So if-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. This is [crosstalk 00:09:51].

Debra Fischer: Okay, [crosstalk 00:09:51] talk about something else. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Okay. No problem. So the measure that you use most commonly is this number of [00:10:00] centimeters that you can see in the shift.

Joe Llama: It's a velocity shift, so it centimeters per second. So it's, yeah, it's a velocity that we measure.

Mat Kaplan: The actual change in the speed of the star, uh, in, in what we see as the velocity of the star, a- as it's affected by the gravity of this little world that's circling it. Right?

Joe Llama: Right.

Mat Kaplan: Mmh. Debra, we'll have to talk more broadly about the 100 Earth's project. And I'm, I'm looking at the website, uh, that is, um, there at, uh,, and we'll put up links to all of this on this week's show page at Uh, but to talk a little bit more about Express. Uh, it obviously builds on what you've done before. That's what you've said. Is it just refinement? Are there new innovations that we'll see in this new spectrometer?

Debra Fischer: There are a list of, I, I would say at least a dozen, uh, new innovations. Um, so these are things that haven't been done in spectrographs before. Some of them may feel like they're small [00:11:00] improvements, but um, have really, it's the combination of everything working together that's allowed us to get this very high precision.

So we, when designing the spectrograph, the metrics that we used for the optical design changed. We used the fiber scrambler, we used the Laser Frequency Comb. We went to much higher resolution than instruments in the past with the idea that we would need to separate out the velocities coming from the surface of the star, from the orbital velocities.

We develop new techniques for flat fielding, new analysis, uh, pipelines. I- it's been a long, a long road of just trying to find and control every single air. And as my poor students get tired of hearing me say, there are a hundred things that can go wrong and if we only get 99 of them right, it's not good enough.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Debra Fischer: We literally have to control everything.

Mat Kaplan: I in fact [00:12:00] see a slogan on the uh-

Debra Fischer: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: 100 Earths website that says, here's the hard lesson. Everything has to be right. [laughs].

Debra Fischer: Yeah. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Then you list five points on this webpage, uh, the things that, that you're working on with uh, X-Press the last of them. Maybe this is what you were starting to, what you just barely mentioned there. Understanding the stellar noise, the noise from the star itself, which could get in the way of your detection of these worlds. It, do I have that right?

Debra Fischer: That's absolutely right. When we are looking at a star and measuring its velocity, the surface of the star is pulsating, coming out towards us and falling back in. Um, and there's spots rotating on the surface of the star and all sorts of strong flows on the surface of the star. And it's just incredibly difficult to disentangle what fraction of our errors have come from, like with old previous, uh, spectrographs, what fraction of the [00:13:00] errors came from the stellar noise, as we call it, the velocities from the surface of the star, and what fraction came from our instrument.

So I just always believed that until we were able to control the errors in our instrument at the level of a few centimeters per second, we wouldn't have the fidelity in our data to finally be able to tackle this last problem of figuring out where the contribution of velocities from the surface of the star start to kick in.

Fortunately, I've been working for the last few years with a statistician here at Yale and her, her, uh, graduate students and postdocs, and there are a lot of uh, sort of bread and butter, uh, techniques and statistics that actually allow us to, they, they can be applied to this problem. So we're starting to make progress. Um, but that's only been possible now that we have an instrument that delivers this incredibly precise data.

Mat Kaplan: Working with a [00:14:00] statistician and her students, it, it sounds like this is very much a multidisciplinary challenge.

Debra Fischer: It absolutely is. And I say, I would say it's a challenge that's so difficult that [laughs] all of our former competitors, all right, are now my friends and my colleagues and we're all working together because there was a time in this field, uh, in the sort of late 90's to the mid 2000s or maybe even a little, uh, later, when there was just intense competition between the various teams to race. And we had web pages who discovered that

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Debra Fischer: Um, and [laughs] at this point, I think there's a sense that we've all worked really hard and now it's us against the star, you know. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: I love that. [laughs].

Debra Fischer: We've redrawn the boundaries of our collaborators, um, to include everybody who used to be our competitor is now working together. I mean, I will, I will do anything [00:15:00] to help any of them. And you know, they've been amazing, uh, in, in helping us as well.

Mat Kaplan: You will have this exquisitely sensitive spectrometer and that's wonderful. But it has to be hooked up to a telescope. Joe, I suppose that's partly where you come in. Right? Can you tell us about the telescope that, uh, that X-Press we'll be working with?

Joe Llama: Absolutely. So X-Press is hooked up to Lowell observatories, Lowell discovery telescope. And so it's a 4.3 meter telescope that was commissioned back in the 2013 I think it was. Yes, 2013. And so it's a state of the art telescope. And so when you couple such a modern facility with such an amazing instrument, you know, you have a recipe for success. It's a, it's a great telescope in a great location.

And then as you say, as you add in X-Press, you just, we are able to just beat down on all the systematics that are preventing us from getting to the precision that we need. And so yeah, [00:16:00] it's just, it's a great combination of tools.

Mat Kaplan: Debra, what is this partnership, uh, between Yale and Lowell? What does it mean for a hundred earths?

Debra Fischer: It's amazing because the Lowell astronomers are just phenomenal and the technical staff is incredible. It is a beautiful, beautiful telescope. So when I first imagined, you know, building X-Press, I visited four or five observatories to try and find the perfect telescope. The little discovery telescope was the one that was just clearly, clearly the best telescope.

And I can tell you more about why, but I, I, I think a, a big part of it is the team, and I just feel incredibly lucky that we were able to partner with them.

Mat Kaplan: Joe, I'm looking forward to paying you a visit, I hope. I, I have to go to a wedding in Flagstaff. I think it's early in this coming summer. I have not been to Lowell, uh, since the Planetary Defense Conference was held at the nearby campus of, uh, the [00:17:00] university of Arizona. And, uh, I'm, I'm, I'm sorry, Northern Arizona University, I think.

Joe Llama: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: I have my schools mixed up. Uh, [laughs] sorry, NAU. It's a wonderful place to visit, isn't it?

Joe Llama: Oh, it really is. It's, it's a wonderful meld of the historical element. You know, Lowell is where Pluto was discovered, um, but also the modern research side. So we have these wonderful telescopes from the early 1900s, and then we couple that with the brand new, you know, cutting edge research facilities. It's an amazing place to work and it's a beautiful place to come visit. I highly recommend it.

Mat Kaplan: Kudos to Percival Lowell for getting it all started. We forgive him for that business with the canals on...

Debra Fischer: [laughs].

Joe Llama: Absolutely. No one is perfect. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Debra, let's broaden this out a little bit. Tell me about the 100 Earths project, which expresses just a component of.

Debra Fischer: Right. I think with the realization that the Kepler, NASA Kepler mission, which was using a completely different technique, looking at [00:18:00] transiting planets, Kepler told us that statistically, almost every star had planets and that small planets were far more common than the big gas giant planets. When you hear that, as an astronomer, you realize that you're guaranteed a success. If you can build an instrument that has the precision to detect the planets, the planets are there. There's no like, anxiety about, you know, if I build it, will they come? They are there waiting for us.

And so we, uh, we imagined that if we could look at a hundred stars, which is about the size of our sample, that we should be able to find planets around most of them with the radial velocity method. Most of these stars are stars that I've looked at for the last 20 years of my career using telescopes either um, on Mount Hamilton, the Lick Observatory, on your San Jose, California or the Keck telescope.

Um, so these stars are our [00:19:00] old friends. They are the closest stars or nearest neighbors to the sun. And now with the precision that we have, we're beginning to uncover, uh, the first, uh, signals from some of these stars.

Mat Kaplan: I'll be right back with astronomers, Debra Fischer of Yale and Joe Llama of the Lowell observatory.

Speaker 4: Where did we come from? Are we alone in the cosmos? These are the questions of the core of our existence, and the secrets of the universe are out there waiting to be discovered. But to find them, we have to go into space. We have to explore. This endeavor unites us. Space exploration truly brings out the best in us, encouraging people from all walks of life to work together to achieve a common goal, to know the cosmos and our place within.

This is why The Planetary Society exists. [00:20:00] Our mission is to give you the power to advance space science and exploration. With your support, we sponsor innovative space technologies, inspire curious minds and advocate for our future in space. We are The Planetary Society. Join us.

Mat Kaplan: We're back with Debra Fischer and Joe Llama. Continuing our conversation about the 100 Earths project. What is the current status of, of this effort and, and what's the timeline for the future? I mean, can you even begin to project when you might achieve this goal of finding a 100, I'll use the term advisedly, Earths?

Debra Fischer: Yup. What we're looking for are planets that were just missed given the error bars of the old generation, uh, spectrographs. The instrument was commissioned e- exactly one year ago. Actually in February, of 2019, we finally had it fully commissioned. And so now we're [00:21:00] collecting data on stars. And with the technique that we use, we have to map out at least one full orbit.

And of course the stars are only visible for part of the year because the, the earth is going around the sun, so we lose them in the glare of the sun. Um, but as we're coming around in our second year, we're going to be confirming some tentative signals that we've already identified.

Mat Kaplan: How soon do you think, and I'm not saying that this is based on, on data necessarily, how soon do you think you'll start saying, guess what, we found an Earth size planet in the habitable zone around such and such a star.

Debra Fischer: Right? That's going to be the hardest question to answer, finding, will we be able to find an Earth-like planet at the habitable zone? We are still going to be pushing the boundaries and the frontiers. The first thing we're trying to do is to find analogs of the planets that Kepler says exist in great abundance, but we miss them.

[00:22:00] These are earth size or are roughly two times the size of the earth, uh, planets in orbits out to about 200 days. For that category of planets, we are actually, I would say we're working on our first paper, uh, of a pub, a possible publication.

Mat Kaplan: Ooh.

Debra Fischer: And I'm a little nervous about it because it's, you know, about five times the mass of the earth. Um, because this particular planet orbits a star that's lower in mass than the sun. The habitable zone moves in closer, but even this one is not quite out there. We're seeing tentatively, uh, additional planets in that system.

Uh, so this is gonna take a while. This is, we're going to have to be patient, and our job as scientists is to make sure that the data have extremely high fidelity. That's I live and die by my data. Right?

Mat Kaplan: Yeah.

Debra Fischer: And then once we do that, then the data will tell us the story of what's there.

Mat Kaplan: When you talk about planets with, [00:23:00] you know, double the mass of earth or five times the mass of earth. I, are you talking there about, are these Neptune, sub Neptune planets or are they more in the classification known as super earths?

Debra Fischer: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. I would say that these, and I'll listen to what Joe says as well, but um, Neptune is roughly 17 times the mass of the earth. And so a planet that's five earth masses, you know, I would consider it to be a, a super earth.

Mat Kaplan: Joe.

Joe Llama: Yeah, I would agree. I would completely agree. Um, I think one thing that we are finding from Kepler is is not really this discretization of, you know, this planet, isn't it? There's a continuous distribution of planets.

Mat Kaplan: Mmh.

Joe Llama: And I think X-Press is going to find all of them, uh, all, all classes of planet.

Mat Kaplan: That's an important point since I think using these convenient, um, classification names may have misled some of us into thinking that somehow these planets sort of, uh, seeded themselves into [00:24:00] certain categories and, and it's much more interesting and sounds much more likely that as you say, it's, it's more or less continuous spectrum, if you will.

Joe Llama: Absolutely. And I think that's no more poignant than here at Lowell with, you know, Pluto's demo- denotation to a dwarf planet. Um, that makes it no less interesting to study. It makes it no less of an object, but somehow in people's minds because it's now a dwarf planet, it's not as interesting a place to, to study and that's just simply not true.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Yeah. Something we've talked with many people about including Alan Stern. Debra as you know, The Planetary Society is very proud of this long relationship that has had with you supporting your work, uh, for, for many years a- as you said. And I know that there is a project about to begin where we will be trying to contribute to development of X-Press as well. Can you, can you say a little bit about that and, and what's involved?

Debra Fischer: Absolutely. And Joe is actually, uh, leading, he's the intellectual leader of this new project. [00:25:00] Um, using a telescope that looks at the sun to be able to detect the planets [laughs] that we know are there. It's so cool to have the answer in the back of a book, you know, every once in a while you're going to do that-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Debra Fischer: Um, so that you make sure that the techniques that you've sharpened up, um, are really working. This project will use the, the solar telescope and measure the sun, day after day to detect, to see if we can detect Venus.

Joe Llama: That's right. So Debra's really picked the harder of the two problems to go find the planets around, you know, the other styles. Whereas I picked the easy problem where we narrow the planets so that we know what we're looking for. The advantage that the sun gives us is A, the spectrograph is just sitting idle during the day. So you know, it's really great that we can almost make 24 hours a day use of the spectrograph.

But the other advantage of the sun is we can spatially resolve it. And so, you know, Debra's group are working with statisticians at Yale, [00:26:00] and one of the things that we can then feed them is spatially resolved data of the sun from other instruments like NASA's solar dynamics observatory, which is constantly taking these really high precision, high resolution images of the sun and feed them sun-like the star observations from a solar telescope to try and figure out exactly what the signatures of activity are and try and remove those from the data the dapper takes in the night to search for these 100 Earths to try and tease out that tiny signal from an earth size planet.

Mat Kaplan: So you can just redirect the light when, uh, morning comes from the discover telescope, uh, to make it come to X-Press from this solar telescope.

Joe Llama: Absolutely. We downsize from a 4.3 meters telescope to a 17 millimeter lens.

Debra Fischer: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Ah, I just, this may not be particularly relevant, but I'm just wondering, I mean [laughs] obviously, you're looking at things that are rather radically different in [00:27:00] brightness. Do you have to take specialist steps to protect X-Press when it uh, is looking at the sun.

Joe Llama: Uh, that was definitely a concern. Um, we've put it in quite a few neutral density filters. Um, but we are pretty confident we are not going to saturate and you know damage the X-Press detectors.

Mat Kaplan: Mmh.

Joe Llama: Uh, we've done a lot of due caveat, to make sure that doesn't happen.

Debra Fischer: And Joe has the first, uh, spectra actually of the sun, um, taken.

Mat Kaplan: Oh.

Debra Fischer: So that we have confirmation that it's, it's all, it's all good.

Joe Llama: That's right. We saw, we saw first light back in December and we're hoping to be routinely on the sky observing the sun every day, every clear day, which there are many of here in Northern Arizona coming, starting, hopefully in April, uh, we'll be routinely on sky observing the sun every five minutes during the day.

Mat Kaplan: That's fantastic. And congratulations on that, that first light. Debra, back to the project that The Planetary Society will be, uh, helping out with, it has to do with, uh, what? Replacing some fiber optics?

Debra Fischer: That's right. [00:28:00] So we need to have, um, the fiber optic feeds for the Laser Frequency Comb, um, use something called a photonic crystal fiber. It's a surprisingly small, like maybe about, uh, 10 inches of fiber, but it's technically very difficult to manufacture. So that bit of fiber costs $20,000. And to be able to [inaudible 00:28:25] both the solar telescope and the night use of X-Press with the laser frequency comb, we, we need to have that other fiber.

Mat Kaplan: Well, what specifically is so special about this fiber? Why [laughs] that makes it so much more expensive than the line that goes from my, my flat screen TV to my stereo system? [laughs].

Debra Fischer: Right. Because this fiber is doing a whole lot of work. It's taking a pulse laser and cascading that pulse so that very precisely, we get an emission line roughly every 10 pixels on our spectrograph, [00:29:00] cascaded down from an infrared wavelength of a laser all the way through the visible, uh, band pass, um, for X-Press.

Mat Kaplan: I guess that gives us an idea. This is just one component of X-Press of, of just how difficult it is to put together an instrument with this kind of precision. And yet you're working with it, uh, Joe on a daily basis or will be.

Joe Llama: Absolutely. It's, it's mind boggling. Um, you know, I'm so grateful to the team at Yale for all their, you know, decades of hard work that have led up to this point. And I feel a little bit bad that I'm coming in late to the game and just, I get to use this instrument to do amazing science.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Joe Llama: Um, yeah, it's such a, it's such a great opportunity.

Mat Kaplan: Debra. My guess is that you don't fault Joe for arriving at the party late because I, I know that you have always been so supportive, not only of your own students who work directly with you there at Yale and at previous institutions, uh, but of, of bringing up, uh, youngsters, [00:30:00] sorry, Joe, hardly a youngster, uh, but of encouraging this next generation.

Debra Fischer: Absolutely. No, I'm, um, I feel lucky to have Joe, um on the team. He's an amazing scientist. And, um, we, we just couldn't do all of the science, you know, without, without the whole team. The team is amazing. Um, and I, and I would say every once in a while, I look at X-Press and I wonder what was I thinking that I imagined I could ever do this?

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Debra Fischer: It's this, uh, thank goodness. And [laughs] we're definitely... it is daunting. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Debra, you've been at this for decades now. Are you as excited as ever about finding other worlds and especially worlds that could be like our own?

Debra Fischer: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. It never gets old. And especially since these stars I feel like are, are my old friends. I mean, I've been looking at them for 20 years and looking at them and missing the planets that are now beginning to emerge, which is just a spectacular feeling.

Mat Kaplan: Joe, I know we'll put [00:31:00] up your, uh, personal webpage as well, as well as the page, uh, that you have at Lowell, and it talks about your work, your interest in the magnetic fields of stars and how that affects, uh, our ability to find exoplanets. Uh, or, or, or do you want to restate that?

Joe Llama: Oh, sure. So, yeah, I'm, one of my main research interests is actually in the magnetic fields of an exoplanet. And so one of the advantages of a planet having a magnetic field is that it enables the planet to hold onto its atmosphere. And so it's just one of the possible requirements for a planet to be considered habitable. Being able to detect extra planetary magnetic fields is going to be an important step in, in the characterization of a potentially habitable world.

Mat Kaplan: We're talking about what could be one of the differences anyway between what we see of Mars now and what the Earth still is, that we have that nice field to protect us from the sun.

Joe Llama: Exactly. That's exactly right.

Mat Kaplan: And Debra, that takes me exactly where I [00:32:00] wanted to go as we close this out, finding these worlds in their habitable zones, that's one thing. What about looking for the signs of life using spectrograph spectrometers that are going to be sensitive enough to show us things like oxygen, methane and whatever else?

Debra Fischer: Right. Um, we are actually using X-Press to measure the atmospheres of some planets that are transiting, but the planets that we're able to look at, uh, right now from the ground are typically gas giant planets. So they're transiting Jupiters. It still is, um, gives us the chance to take our first baby steps though, into this whole field.

And I just finished, uh, serving as a community co-chair on a NASA science technology development team, uh, for a large ultraviolet optical infrared telescope that we imagine would have a diameter of between 10 and 15 meters, would probably be parked far out on the [00:33:00] other side of the moon, at the second LaGrand point.

Mat Kaplan: Mmh.

Debra Fischer: We have a Corona graph that could know out the light from the star so that we could see image and take spectra of the atmospheres of orbiting planets. So our job right now, the first thing we're focusing on for the next few years is going to be to find the names and the addresses, the phone numbers of these really interesting planets and then pass them on so that someday when some version of this telescope design that we worked on for the last four years is built, probably in the 2030, uh, yeah 2030s, um, that the next generation will be able to follow up and see if the atmospheres look like there could be life there.

Mat Kaplan: So there is much, much more to look forward to. And while we can marvel at what has been accomplished in this field, uh, that didn't exist not very many years ago, I guess there's much more [00:34:00] ahead of us.

Debra Fischer: Absolutely. Oh, that's science. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Uh, Joe, is this a field that you're going to stick with?

Joe Llama: Absolutely. It's so exciting, you know. How can you, how can you not love your job when what you're doing is traveling out to a telescope, observing at the stars, looking for earth size planets. It's the coolest thing.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you both. This has been a wonderful conversation and, uh, I hope that the hunt goes extremely well. I, I look forward to sharing with the listeners to this show how they can become part of it, uh, through this, uh, campaign that The Planetary Society will be running to augment or, or improve the X-Press instrument that, uh, I've been talking about with Debra Fischer and, uh, Joe Llama. Debra, Joe, thanks very much.

Debra Fischer: Thank you.

Joe Llama: Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Time again for what's up on Planetary Radio. Bruce Betts is the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, and he is a back, near the tail end of this, uh, leap year [00:35:00] February to, uh, tell us about the night sky. And we've got some great results for the contest that he's going to provide with some help from me. Welcome.

Bruce Betts: Oh my gosh, it's leap year. That changes everything.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Yeah.

Bruce Betts: Uh, all right, I'll just, I'll make it.

Mat Kaplan: Take two.

Bruce Betts: I'll make adjustments on the fly.

Mat Kaplan: Go for it.

Bruce Betts: Alright, so evenings dominated by a super bright Venus over in the West. In the predawn, it's not only planets, it's planets all lined up, where you've got uh, from upper right to lower left in the Eastern sky. In the predawn you got Mars looking reddish and then really bright Jupiter and then to its lower left is yellow Saturn, kind of neat right now 'cause they're all roughly equidistant, and they're all in a line.

And I like to remind you, as you know, Matt, the planet's, uh, all orbit in roughly the same plane. So they get in this nice line when they're in the night sky, it's like proof or something.

Mat Kaplan: [00:36:00][laughs].

Bruce Betts: But they're particularly lined up in this case. And not a planet and having nothing to do with the orbits of planets. And Terry's, reddish star and Scorpius, if you follow that line farther up to the right, you'll find another reddish object that is Antares.

Mat Kaplan: There are objects outside of that plane, right, that, that good old plane like comets and things like that, right?

Bruce Betts: Oh, there are tons of objects, wacky, wacky objects outside that plane. And then even more so as you get to the outer solar system, all the, all the big guys orbit in approximately the same plane. Not exactly, we call it the ecliptic.

Mat Kaplan: I'm just not clever enough today to come up with anything too loud to answer that.

Bruce Betts: Also mentioned I, I, uh, the dimming of Betelgeuse and Orion, which you can see quite, quite nicely in the evening sky, uh, was [laughs] the implications were overly exaggerated perhaps because it's a, it's [00:37:00] brightening again, it's a variable star, so probably not going supernova, but who knows. Take a look tonight and check it out.

Mat Kaplan: I mean, it would put on quite a show, wouldn't it? For our benefit of course.

Bruce Betts: Oh, it'd be fantabulous if the star exploded.

Mat Kaplan: Unless you live nearby. [laughs].

Bruce Betts: I meant for us, yeah.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Arthur C. Clark wrote a story about that once.

Bruce Betts: Onto this week in space history. It was 1966, the two astronauts, the Gemini primary crew for Gemini 9, Basset and See were killed in a plane crash. So we remember them. And then 1969, Apollo 9 was launched this week. Quite successful, and we're going to talk more about Apollo 9.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, that's great. You're probably going to talk about this, but because it didn't go to the moon, it didn't get the attention of the others, but it did such an important job of getting ready to, to go to the moon. I'm getting ahead of you. [laughs] Let's go to the contrast.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: No, [00:38:00] let's go to random space fact. How about that? Man, I should've gotten more sleep.

Bruce Betts: Me too. Rrrrr! Random space fan. So as you probably know, Matt, I'm sure you know, the main point of the Apollo 9 mission was to test out the lunar module in space and rendezvous and docking. Uh, but also on the mission was the first and only EVA Extravehicular activity of the EMU, the Extravehicular mobility unit. In other words, the life support backpack that was worn by astronauts on the moon, and this was the only time they tested it in space when Rusty Schweiker put it on and, and ducked out of the capsule. And the next time it got used with slight modifications was on the lunar surface in Apollo 11.

Mat Kaplan: Rusty Schweiker, friend of the, of Planetary Radio and of The Planetary Society, uh, still, still around today, uh, helping, uh, to, to save the planet. Right?

Bruce Betts: He is indeed, he is [00:39:00] passionate about planetary defense and protecting the earth from asteroid impact as are we.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, yup.

Bruce Betts: And, and you've, you've anticipated, again, we'll come back to Rusty Schweiker-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: ... although having nothing to do with planetary defense. Uh, but first trivia question we ask, who performed the longest solo space flight? How'd we do Matt?

Mat Kaplan: I was very surprised by this, and it has a record that has stood up for a long time. In fact, how long is a, in this week's poem from our poet Laureate de Fairchild, in June of 1963, the U.S. to Outpace, Valery Bykovsky went in Vostok 5 to space. His mission was supposed to be a solo of eight days, but he came down on number five because of solar rays. Valery Bykovsky?

Bruce Betts: Yes. Valery Bykovsky.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, Bykovsky. Okay, thank you.

Bruce Betts: Bykovsky, Bykovsky.

Mat Kaplan: Uh, we've got many other comments about this from a, from our listeners, many of [00:40:00] whom were also surprised by this result. Our winner, first-time winner, Mat Walter in Louisiana, he said a problem with Vostok 5's waste collection system is reported to have made conditions unpleasant in the capsule. [laughs].

Bruce Betts: Yeah.

Mat Kaplan: So a Valery was probably just as happy to come back early. Matt, congratulations. You have won yourself a priceless Pran, Pran, Planetary Society rubber astroid and a Planetary Radio t-shirt from The Planetary Society store,, you can, uh, check out all the, all the match there.

Norman Cassoon in the UK. During the flight, he conducted experiments such as photographing the Earth's horizon and documenting the growth of peas. He was growing green peas in, in, in his capsule, apparently. Arnold [Drink 00:40:53] in Belgium said that Valery was one of his biggest heroes as one of the guys who managed later, of course, to [00:41:00] keep the mirror space station operational with tubes going through hatches, the fire, the loss of specter and its recovery of power after a few spacewalks, McGiver in space.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Laura [Dodd 00:41:13] in California says he wasn't completely alone the whole time because, did you know this Valentina Tereshkova came within about five kilometers aboard Vostok 6.

Bruce Betts: Yes. I did know that. That was the plan.

Mat Kaplan: First woman in space. Not quite waving distance, but, but not bad. Okay. Then we get into the silly stuff like this from William Hillier in Germany. He, uh, thought that we should count Elon Musk, Starman who when he wrote this, had been in space by himself for two years and 12 days. Mel Powell said, Oh, contraire it may have been Alice Kramden. [laughs].

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: One of these days, Alice Powell, right to the moon, said, uh, Ralph Kramden. And Mark Little, his first [00:42:00] answer, and this definitely would have been the winner if it wasn't fiction like the previous two. Buck Rogers who spent 504 years in Ranger three in suspended animation. [laughs].

Bruce Betts: [laughs]. I need to be more specific of what I'll accept, I guess.

Mat Kaplan: Exxon [BegLu 00:42:16], uh, in Ontario it was Chewbacca because he flew with solo in a galaxy far, far away.

Bruce Betts: Not with solo, just flew solo.

Mat Kaplan: More poetry to finish the day. Martin Hajovski, uh, submitted this, well, he called it, not a Haiku, but a Hikovsky, for Bykovsky from Hajovski.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: ... four days, Valery flew in Vostok alone with Earth, his companion. Finally, John Coward, friend of the show, he's in Florida formally many years with NASA and the commercial crew program, still very much a space man though, working for aerospace.

At first, I thought this query might just be a trick because the old Bruce man is sometimes pretty slick.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [00:43:00] So deep into my archives, I borrowed like a mole to find the name of this brave and trepid soul. First I look to Apollo thinking I might see if a command module pilot named T.K. Mattingly had spent sufficient time about the moon alone to bring me victory and a rubber astroid to my home.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Alas, T.K. was not the one for me, nor was it Gordo nor Scott, nor even Wally.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: No, the name that I needed to bring home, the V was just a little old Vostok driver, Valery Bykovsky.

Bruce Betts: Wow. Impressive rhyming.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Great work, John. Uh, this can be your second career. [laughs] We're done with that. Uh, what do you got for next time?

Bruce Betts: What was Rusty Schweiker's call sign during his EVA on Apollo 9. Got a Planetary... [laughs] go somewhere. Go to contest.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] All right, [00:44:00] Rusty. You, you can enter if you like. [laughs] And if you do, and you're chosen by Rusty, you can win a Planetary Society, rubber asteroid and, uh, what the heck? Another Planetary Radio t-shirt from

Bruce Betts: All right everybody, go out there and look up in the night sky and think about what you would do with the rubber asteroid to help yourself sleep better. Thank you, and good night.

Mat Kaplan: That's Bruce bets.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Go enjoy a nice nap. He's the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, and he's earned that nap because he joins us every week here on what's up.

Bruce Betts: Come here rubber asteroid.

Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California is made possible by its members who seek out new worlds. Join them at Mark Hilverda, our associate producer, Josh Doyle, composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. Like what you hear, [00:45:00] please give us a review, or at least for rating. Ad Astra.