Searching For Life Basking in the Warmth of Other Suns
October 6, 2014
John A. Johnson
Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Just three years ago the prospect of finding temperate, rocky worlds around other stars was still the subject of science fiction: none had been found and reasonable estimates put us years or decades away from such a momentous discovery. All of that has changed very recently on the heels of the extraordinarily successful NASA Kepler mission. By searching for the tiny diminutions of starlight indicative of an eclipsing planet, Kepler has produced thousands of new planet candidates orbiting distant stars. Careful statistical analyses have shown that the majority of these candidates are bona fide planets, and the number of planets increases sharply toward Earth-sized bodies. Even more remarkably, many of these planets are orbiting right “next door,” around tiny red dwarf stars. I will describe our multi-telescope campaign to validate and characterize these tiny planetary systems, and present some early, exciting results that point the way to the first detection of the first Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars.
About the Speaker
Dr. John Asher Johnson received his Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology), and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. He then held a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in Astronomy and Astrophysics, based at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawai'i). After spending four years as an assistant professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech, he is now a Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He has been awarded the Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, the David & Lucile Packard Fellowship, and the AAS Newton Lacy Pierce Prize for "for major contributions to understanding fundamental relationships between extrasolar planets and their parent stars." In 2013, he was named one of Astronomy Magazine’s “Ten Rising Stars” in astrophysics. His primary research focus is on the detection and characterization of planets outside our Solar System, commonly known as exoplanets. His most recent work is focused on studying the properties of Earth-like planets around the Galaxy’s least massive stars, commonly known as red dwarfs. His notable discoveries include three of the smallest planets discovered to date, each smaller than the Earth and one the size of Mars. His statistical analysis of planets discovered around red dwarfs has revealed that there exist 1-3 Earth-like planets per star throughout the Galaxy. In addition to papers in professional journals and conferences, his work has been featured in the magazines Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Physics Today, Discover and New Scientist.