Date August 25, 2022
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Allen Dufort: Coding a cutting-edge space telescope

As a software engineer intern, Allen Dufort is supporting a Brown physicist’s NASA-funded project to help build a telescope that will enable the study of distant planets.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In July, as the world marveled at the first images of the Cosmic Cliffs and previously invisible areas of star birth revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope, Allen Dufort felt excited that he’d soon make his own contributions to space exploration.

As a software engineer intern for Brown University Professor of Physics Gregory Tucker, Dufort has spent Summer 2022 writing computer code for components of a telescope that a team from Brown is helping to build, thanks to a grant from NASA.

Among the components being developed at Brown is a cryogenic system for the instrument’s spectrometer. Interference generated by the optics inside the spectrometer itself could obscure the signals that the researchers are trying to detect. By cooling the optics down, Dufort explained, the team can minimize that interference.

“It’s basically like a freezer for the telescope, so it doesn’t get too warm,” Dufort said. “We’re working on the code to make sure it can communicate with other parts of the telescope, to send messages to the cooler and back.”

The rising junior is channeling his passions for computer science and space exploration into the project, which is stretching his skills in new ways.

“It’s definitely challenging,” the computer science concentrator said. “The thing that has surprised me is how much is unknown. Typically, when I get into a computer science project, there are people who know more than me — other people who have coded similar stuff. But there’s a very large portion of this that isn’t fully known. I find that really interesting.”

Dufort first learned about Tucker’s research while taking a course with him on exoplanets in Fall 2021. Tucker needed a coder and hired Dufort to work on the project, which he describes as a real-world experience that has augmented his studies.

“I’ve been coding for years, but unlike other computer science projects, you can’t look up the answer and there’s not a TA to guide you in a direction,” Dufort reflected. “It’s new terrain. We try to figure out why an error is popping up, go back to the start, and it definitely takes a lot of time to figure out how everything is working.”

If I can work at NASA or a space agency, that definitely would be cool. I’m trying to aim for that. This work is cool and I could see myself doing this after college.

Allen Dufort Software Engineer Intern for Professor of Physics Gregory Tucker
Headshot of Allen Dufort

Tucker received a $2.5 million grant from NASA in 2020 to build components for the Exoplanet Climate Infrared TElescope (EXCITE). The instrument, which is designed to fly suspended from a high-altitude balloon, combines a powerful telescope with a spectrometer capable of probing the atmospheric characteristics of exoplanets. In particular, EXCITE will study hot Jupiters, planets that are about the size of the largest denizen of the Earth’s solar system but that orbit surprisingly close to their host stars.

“It’s one of the first telescopes to purely be focused on exoplanets,” Dufort said. “I’m excited to see what happens when it’s done.”

This summer, he’s living at home with his family in Norwich, Connecticut, and commuting to Tucker’s lab inside Barus and Holley, where he works in collaboration with Tucker and three graduate students.

“We have some of the telescope materials, but the way we’re testing it now is just a simulation,” Dufort said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be wireless.”

During his breaks from software engineering, Dufort likes to ride his bike and read fantasy and manga graphic novels. When school is in session, he participates in the Brown Space Engineering student organization. He lives on campus with his twin brother, Alex, who is concentrating in political science.

A first-generation U.S. citizen, Dufort’s parents were born in Haiti, where they run an organization in Petit-Goâve that provides diabetes and hypertension care and women’s health services. Dufort has used his tech savvy to help his father with financial modeling and spreadsheets, but he’s aiming for a career in space technology, a resolve that’s been further strengthened by his internship.

“I was interested in space before this project,” Dufort said. “If I can work at NASA or a space agency, that definitely would be cool. I’m trying to aim for that. This work is cool and I could see myself doing this after college.”