In photos: Saratoga Springs High School alumna Jennifer Burt making a planetary point; and several images of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite that today is her specialty. Photos provided.
CAPE CANAVERAL – Jennifer Burt, who graduated from Saratoga Springs High School more than a decade ago, is part of a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology preparing to study distant solar systems with the aid of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
“Over the next two years, TESS is going to search for exoplanets across 85 percent of the sky, focusing specifically on the closest and brightest stars,” Burt wrote in an email that she sent this week from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On Wednesday, she observed the successful second TESS launch attempt at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility in Cape Canaveral.
According to an April 18 report in USA Today, NASA partnered with the private company SpaceX to launch TESS as part of a two-year, $337 million project. Technical issues delayed an initial launch attempt.
Earlier this week, Burt’s role in the TESS project was first covered in a report by television news channel WNYT.
Burt, a Torres Exoplanet Fellow at MIT’s Kavli Institute, elaborated on the scientific data that TESS is programmed to generate.
“The mission is expected to detect thousands of exoplanets smaller than Neptune, and will be able to tell us both how large the planets are and how far away they are from the host star—that second bit of info then lets us calculate whether or not the exoplanets are inside the ‘habitable zone,’ or the region around the star where the temperature is just right for liquid water to be possible on the surface of a planet,” she wrote.
“My role in TESS actually comes after the mission detects these thousands of new exoplanets. I'll work with a variety of ground-based telescopes using precision radial velocity instruments to target the best and brightest TESS stars and measure the masses of the exoplanets that TESS discovers around them,” Burt said.
Determining the density of any newly discovered planets is “an important step in understanding what they're made of (metals, rocks, ices, gases, etc),” she continued.
“The most promising exoplanets, those with significant atmospheres around bright stars, will likely be targeted by NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope which is set to launch in 2020 and will have the ability to peer into the exoplanets' atmospheres, looking for evidence of the elements and molecules that we think might be crucial for letting life develop,” Burt wrote.
When asked how her interest in outer space had evolved from her early years in Saratoga Springs, Burt fondly remembered the guidance provided by retired science teacher Charlie Kuenzel before she graduated in 2006.
“I developed an interest in astronomy when I was a kid, thanks in large part to the dark skies outside of Saratoga and up in the Adirondacks, where my family had a summer cabin,” she wrote.
“I was extremely fortunate to attend SSHS while Charlie Kuenzel was still teaching, and more specifically while he first developed the school's NASA club. I was one of the inaugural members, and ended up as the president for a couple of years, and through that club I gained my first real experience with scientific research and realized that astronomy in particular could become a rewarding career, and not just a hobby,” Burt explained.
Today she encourages high school students to take advantage of local opportunities related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as a means to pursue similar research.
“In my mind, the ability to get the public interested in what organizations like NASA are doing is almost as important as the science itself,” Burt admitted. “For students who share a similar interest and want to help explore our solar system, our galaxy, or even the universe at large, I think that pursuing a career in a STEM field is a challenging but extremely rewarding pathway, and one that will open all sorts of interesting and exciting career opportunities as they move forward in life.”
For more information about TESS, visit the website https://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/.