Astronomy – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 25 Mar 2019 17:14:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Lost in Space Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:46:40 +0000 In September 1962, a 20-pound hunk of a Soviet spacecraft, still hot, landed in the middle of a Manitowoc street, rocketing Wisconsin into the space age. It wasn’t so much a sign of things to come on Earth, but it was a glimpse of what was to come in space: it was going to get crowded up there.

Just 60 years ago, the environment around our planet was pristine. But now there is an eclectic constellation of stuff. The list includes wrenches, toolboxes, and cameras left behind by astronauts, along with abandoned and broken satellites, spent rocket parts, and the cremated remains of celebrities and rich people (including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry). At least 23,000 other objects larger than a baseball, not to mention the millions of bits of debris too small to track, are speeding like shrapnel through space.

Also in orbit, of course, are plenty of working satellites. And their numbers continue to grow at an astonishing pace as the world’s spacefaring nations take advantage of new rocket technologies, miniaturization, and plummeting costs to seed space with more and more satellites.

“Satellites are in the background of just about everything we do in our daily lives. Modern-day America is tied to satellites. They are infrastructure,” explains space debris expert Lisa Ruth Rand, a science historian who was an A. W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in UW–Madison’s Center for the Humanities from 2016 to 2018.

Within the next few years, the number of satellites in orbit may climb by as many as 20,000. This year alone, scores of small satellites have been lifted into Earth’s orbit, and the deployment of thousands more is already in the works. One ambitious proposal from the aerospace company SpaceX calls for placing as many as 12,000 small satellites in low-Earth orbit to create internet service networks.

Sometimes, the orbits of the things we launch into space — such as the bus-sized vacated Chinese space lab that came blazing back to Earth in April 2018 — degrade, and those objects streak through the atmosphere, often disintegrating and burning up. Cosmic debris also crashes into oceans and, occasionally, terra firma. But as the space around Earth gets more congested, the risk of debris crashing into spacecraft or working satellites (used for weather, navigation, communications, science, and defense) becomes significantly greater. In June, the Trump administration announced a space policy directive intended to prevent more collisions in the increasingly crowded orbits around the planet.

The first documented space wreck occurred in 2009, when a collision over Siberia between a defunct Russian military satellite and a commercial communications satellite created some 2,300 pieces of junk large enough to track by radar. The event inspired Rand, who once harbored aspirations to be an astronaut and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, with a ringside seat for rocket and Space Shuttle launches from America’s “Space Coast.” She began to examine our legacy of space junk as an environmental issue, work she continued during her UW fellowship, cosponsored by the Department of History and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She is now hip deep in writing a book on the history of galactic garbage.

The saga is riveting: a tale of rocketing technological sophistication, Cold War clashes, cultural iconography, geopolitical maneuvering, and environmental hubris. Take, for example, Project West Ford. Initiated by the U.S. Air Force and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the early 1960s, the aim was to fill space with millions of needlelike dipoles — magnetized wires — that could serve as emergency reflectors or antennae for radio signals in the event of a nuclear attack. The Air Force launched a test version and successfully used it to transmit cross-country signals, but the full-fledged project never followed. A few clumps of the project’s copper dipoles remain in their polar orbit 2,250 miles above Earth.

“Beginning with Sputnik, there’s been a pretty high awareness of the dangers of polluting space among scientific, government, and lay communities,” notes Rand, who holds research appointments at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the RAND Corporation. (RAND stands for Research and Development. No relation to the historian.)  

In 1962, two Manitowoc police officers found a piece of Sputnik 4 that landed in the middle of a city street. Courtesy of the Rahr-West Art Museum

The first encounter with space junk for many was the world’s first baby step into space. Those who were alive when the first Sputnik was slung into orbit in 1957 remember dark nights in the backyard waiting for the “satellite” to pass overhead. What we were in fact seeing, says Rand, was the second stage of the rocket that carried Sputnik aloft. For the backyard observer, the satellite was too small to see.

Since then, the space around our planet has accumulated a cloud of orbiting debris. One early American satellite, Explorer 7, launched in 1959, carried the flat-plate radiometer, the world’s first space-based climate experiment. Devised by UW weather-satellite pioneer Verner Suomi and engineering professor Robert Parent ’39, MS’49, the radiometer was used to establish the critical role of clouds on climate and showed that Earth absorbed more of the sun’s energy than previously thought. The experiment aboard the 70-pound satellite paved the way for all future studies of weather and climate from space. Six decades later, it’s still in orbit.

Another UW contribution to the clutter around Earth is the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory–2 (OAO–2), the first successful space telescope. Launched in December 1968, OAO–2 carried Wisconsin-built telescopes that opened a new astronomical vista by providing access to light waves such as ultraviolet, which are blocked or absorbed by the atmosphere. This led to a raft of discoveries, including the identification of hydrogen halos around comets. Contact with OAO–2 was lost in January 1973, ending the mission and relegating it to the catalog of lifeless objects that circle our planet.

“[OAO–2 is] listed on various websites and apps that keep track of satellites, but I’ve never succeeded in seeing it fly over,” says Jim Lattis MA’87, PhD’89, a UW historian of astronomy and director of the university’s astronomy outreach outpost, Space Place. “It isn’t particularly bright.”

The observatory and its launch of space astronomy was an early milestone in the scientific community’s abiding interest in the environment immediately above our planet. For astronomers, programs such as Project West Ford were a threat, seeding space with objects that would reflect light and radio waves, wreaking havoc with astronomical observations.

Vigorous lobbying to impose some international regulation of Earth’s orbit was the prelude to the first space treaties. The effort spurred one annoyed diplomat to scrawl a hand-written note on a State Department resolution, discovered by Rand during her research, describing astronomers as “a noisy and parochial group.”

But sooner or later, depending on altitude, everything comes back to Earth. Many objects spend only a short time in space, a few years to mere days. Objects in very high geostationary (matching Earth’s rotation) orbits — 22,000 miles and above — would be there for thousands of years, except that international convention requires that maneuverable satellites in those high orbits be brought down when their missions are complete. Although various schemes have been proposed to clean up space — nets, harpoons, robotic arms, space tugs — “we often allow outer space to clean up our mess for us. Earth orbit, like the ocean and the atmosphere, is a waste sink,” Rand says.

Certain orbits, especially geostationary and polar orbits for large maneuverable satellites, are a precious and finite resource. There are “good orbits” to be in, notes UW meteorological satellite guru Steve Ackerman. For example, key weather satellites are lined up in less-cluttered orbits, keeping them safely away from other working satellites to ensure they can avoid collisions and do their jobs. Right outside Manitowoc’s Rahr-West Art Museum, in the middle of one of the Wisconsin city’s busiest thoroughfares, is a brass ring set flush in the pavement. Placed by the International Association of Machinists in 1963, the plate-sized ring marks the spot where, in the early morning hours of September 5, 1962, two city patrol officers making their rounds discovered a piece of steel embedded three inches deep in the pavement of North Eighth Street. It was from an unmanned Soviet spacecraft — dubbed Sputnik 4 in the West — rumored to be carrying a prototype spacesuit as a test for crewed flights. Its flight went awry due to a bug in the guidance system, and instead of a planned, controlled glide to Earth, the ship was boosted to a higher orbit. The seven-ton spacecraft eventually re-entered the atmosphere, where most of it vaporized — except for a few bits that landed in Wisconsin.

Although Rahr-West is dedicated to fine art, the museum has a small display of artifacts — a cast replica of the spacecraft fragment, pictures, and newspaper clippings — to memorialize Manitowoc’s unique place in the history of the space race.

“Being able to recover part of a spaceship was a rare thing,” Rand says. “It is one of the few pieces of space debris — outside of the space shuttle Columbia accident — that has been recovered on American soil.”

The remains of Sputnik 4 became a Cold War prop as the United States sought to return the debris to the Soviets on the floor of the United Nations, demonstrating for all the world that early Russian spaceflight technology didn’t necessarily match the nation’s boasts.

The only other confirmed example of space junk found on American soil is also the only documented case of space debris striking a human. In January 1997, Lottie Williams was hit by a bit of fabric debris from an American Delta II booster rocket while walking in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, park. “Lottie was lucky,” according to one 2014 account: she was hit by the smallest piece of wreckage from the disintegrated rocket. A 66-pound titanium pressure tank was recovered in Texas.

For Rand, a visit to Rahr-West — where museum curator Adam Lovell places a thin file of letters, reports, and yellowed newspapers on a conference room table for her perusal — is another opportunity to research her story of space debris. The museum, for its part, takes full advantage of its proximity to Sputnik 4’s ground zero. Each year in early September, the museum hosts Sputnikfest, a quirky celebration featuring a Ms. Space Debris pageant (a contest open to any “human life-form,” in which Rand has twice placed as runner-up).

The crash of Sputnik 4 into one of Manitowoc’s busiest streets decades ago is a convenient touchstone for Rand, who came to the UW in 2016 after completing her doctorate in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. The debris that falls from space, she has learned, is almost never recovered, instead burning up or falling in the oceans that cover most of our planet. Exceptions include the U.S. space station Skylab, which re-entered the atmosphere in 1979, pocking the Australian Outback with at least 22 tons of wreckage in 500 pieces — some the size of a loveseat.

And then there’s the example of Kosmos 954, a nuclear-powered Soviet reconnaissance satellite launched in 1977. A malfunction prevented the satellite from safely shedding its uranium-powered reactor core, and when it re-entered the atmosphere in 1978, it scattered radioactive debris over 48,000 square miles of Northwest Canada.

The incident prompted an exhaustive international air and land sweep to find and scoop up large pieces of radioactive debris — one reportedly so hot that a few hours of exposure would have been fatal.

International incidents created by stuff that falls randomly from the sky date almost to the beginning of the Space Age. In 1960, Rand notes, a failed rocket launch from Cape Canaveral resulted in debris raining down on newly Communist Cuba. A piece of debris supposedly struck and killed a cow, inspiring the first student-led anti-American demonstration there. The United States reportedly paid $2 million in compensation for the beaned bovine. It was a gift, too, for headline writers: the “Herd Shot Around the World.”

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Michael Molnar PhD’71 Mon, 09 Nov 2015 17:26:43 +0000 Michael Molnar

Courtesy of Michael Molnar

Astronomers typically make their discoveries by pointing a telescope into the night sky. But astronomer Michael Molnar PhD’71 discovered what he believes is the identity of the most famous star in history by studying his coin collection.

In astronomy classes that he taught at Rutgers University, students often raised questions about the Star of Bethlehem at Christmastime. Molnar gave the conventional and inconclusive explanations that began with pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler four hundred years ago.

But then a Roman coin depicting a ram and a star led him into the ancient world of astrology and an unexpected key. “I’m an astronomer, not an astrologer,” Molnar says. “I had to learn what astrologers of two thousand years ago would have looked for in the sky for the birth of the king of the Jews.”

His research suggested that a moon passing in front of Jupiter (an occultation in astronomical terms), while it was in the zodiacal territory of Aries the Ram, would signal the birth of an important king of the Jews. He calculated that such a rare occultation, with Jupiter as a morning star (“in the east”), occurred in 6 BC on April 17. “Then I knew I had the answer to the Star of Bethlehem,” he says.

It was a different, yet logical, approach. “Molnar deserves credit for his research into the astrological context,” says Peter Barthel, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

In 2014, that university celebrated its four hundredth anniversary with a colloquium focusing on the Star of Bethlehem. “Molnar’s theory was central in our meeting,” Barthel says. And while scholars quibbled, it’s clear that Molnar had identified a phenomenon that had meaning for those who saw symbolism in celestial objects.

“The nature of the Star of Bethlehem must be astrological, not astronomical,” says Louisiana State University astronomer Bradley Schaefer. “The scholarly community has largely been converted.”

Molnar can claim to be living under a benevolent star of his own. While pursuing his PhD in astronomy in 1970, he worked long nights in Sterling Hall. Shortly after midnight on August 24, he became hungry and sought out a vending machine, which jammed and wouldn’t give him his money back. Frustrated, he left early.

Three hours later, a bomb went off, killing researcher Robert Fassnacht and destroying part of Sterling Hall and the work of many students, including that of Molnar. With the help of faculty and fellow students, however, he was able to complete his degree in 1971 and continue his career in astronomy.

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The Planet Hunter Wed, 12 Jun 2013 19:00:58 +0000

The Milky Way is shown above the La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert. The vast expanse of stars and planets has always fascinated Maggie Turnbull, who turned her love for astronomy into a career as a freelance astrobiologist. Working out of her home office in Antigo, Wisconsin, she has become internationally known for her work cataloging potentially habitable planets. Nico Housman/European Southern Observatory

Is there intelligent life beyond Earth? Maggie Turnbull ’98 is determined to find out.

Maggie Turnbull ’98 sits in the fading afternoon light of her parents’ living room in Antigo, Wisconsin, her laptop perched on the table before her. This small town of 8,200 in the Northwoods, hours from the nearest university and a plane ride away from the closest major observatory, is an unusual home base for an astronomer and astrobiologist who has dedicated her career to advancing the search for extraterrestrial life.

But Turnbull is not your typical scientist.

“I really like working in places like this,” she says, gazing over the back yard’s towering trees and small pond, binoculars resting nearby, in case she wants a better glimpse of the woodpeckers dining on the peanut-butter-and-suet concoction she mixes up for them. “Sometimes I just need to stare out the window and think.”

But the life she’s thinking about is light years away from this back yard. Once labeled a genius by CNN, Turnbull is internationally known for her work cataloging potentially habitable planets and even has an asteroid named after her (7863 Turnbull). She’s not afraid to take risks to pursue her scientific dreams — first by choosing astronomy, then by focusing on the search for extraterrestrial life, then by leaving a good job at a highly respected institute to do science on her own terms. As a freelance astrobiologist, she focuses on life in the universe.

The life she has discovered along the way: her own.

As a kindergartner, Turnbull pored over her school’s encyclopedia of planets, its pages filled with big, vivid pictures of the solar system. “Saturn, in particular, was just so exotic and so captivating,” she recalls. “That’s sort of my earliest memory of becoming enchanted with space.”

She yearned to be an astronaut and was obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I was religiously attentive to that show,” she says with a laugh. “Every Monday night at nine o’clock it would come on, and I would be in front of the TV, waiting. I think it probably crystallized in my mind that I was going to do something with space exploration.”

Although she didn’t grow up with a back-yard telescope — frankly, she was underwhelmed by the limited view — she found other ways to feed her fascination with space. In middle school, she devoured every book on the topic that she could find, including one of her father’s old college astronomy textbooks. “It was all words, no pictures, just a black cover. And I couldn’t tear myself away from it,” she says. “I’d come running into the kitchen and say, ‘Mom, did you know if you took even a spoonful from the center of the sun, it could go crashing through this table and to the center of the earth because of how heavy it would be?’ ” In seventh grade, Turnbull tore through Isaac Asimov’s Atom, about atoms and particle physics. “I remember wanting to talk about it in science class, and that wasn’t going anywhere,” she says with a laugh.

On her high school graduation day, a friend asked what she was going to do next.

“I’m going to do astrophysics,” Turnbull declared, putting her plan into words for the first time. She applied to only one college — UW-Madison — and she was on her way.

But once she settled into freshman year, her confidence crumbled. Of the forty-thousand-some students on campus at the time, she was one of just three astronomy majors in her year. “I had a moment where I thought, there’s just no way that’s going to work. Nobody here wants to be an astronomer,” she remembers. “And that’s because there aren’t any jobs. Where am I going to work?”

So she switched her major to biology, thinking it a more practical path. But she felt so sick over the decision that she barely slept for two weeks. One day, her astronomy TA showed a video that included the same pictures of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune that Turnbull had first spotted in that encyclopedia as a child, and she broke down in tears as the images flashed on the screen.

“Are there any jobs at all in this field? Tell me there’s something I can do with my life!” she told the TA after class. They talked about research opportunities through NASA and the National Science Foundation, and, reassured, Turnbull switched her major back to astronomy.

Even then, she was intrigued by the idea of life on other planets, but knew it was considered “fringe.”

“It was an identity crisis. This is how I am, and yet this is how the world works, and the world doesn’t have a place for someone who wants to do something that’s that out there,” she says.

But if the world didn’t have a place yet, she decided, she’d make her own. She soon had her chance.

Turnbull spent a summer working at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, and while she was there, the movie Contact hit theaters. In the film, Jodie Foster plays an astronomer who discovers the first sign of intelligent life from another planet.

“I sat down ready to pooh-pooh that movie. I was going to know all the things that were wrong and inaccurate,” Turnbull says. “But by the end, I was practically standing on my chair saying, ‘That is what I’m supposed to do with my life!’ ”

After graduation, she landed an astrobiology internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. She then started graduate work in astronomy at the University of Arizona, where she was told that her UW research had set her application apart from some two hundred other applicants.

In grad school, she met Jill Tarter, then-director of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, which was searching for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Using radio telescopes to observe nearby sun-like stars, SETI researchers monitored millions of radio channels for evidence of communication transmissions from intelligent beings. Turnbull begged

Tarter for the chance to work for her, and Tarter was impressed by her enthusiasm.

“Maggie is a unique individual,” Tarter says. “She has a huge amount of energy, she’s pretty fearless, and she does things in her own way. When she was in graduate school in Arizona, there was no formal program in astrobiology, so she created her own graduate program.”

One day, while sitting in the SETI offices in Mountain View, California, Turnbull looked over and saw a photo of Tarter with Jodie Foster. “I had not realized that [Tarter] was the one the movie Contact was based on,” she says. “I went from sitting in a movie theater to sitting in the office of the real-world inspiration for that movie.”

While at SETI, Turnbull embarked on an effort to help the project’s re- searchers refine their search. She turned to the Hipparcos catalog, which lists the names, coordinates, color, and distance of about 120,000 nearby stars, and began piecing together shreds of information like a detective to better understand the stars scattered across the cosmos.

“You have to know how far away it is to know how luminous of a star it is. And if you don’t know how luminous it is, then you don’t know how massive it is, which means you don’t know how long it’s going to live or how old it is,” Turnbull explains. “The brightest stars only live for a million years. We need to know this when we’re building a target list for SETI, because you need a nice, stable environment for billions of years for life to take hold, especially for intelligent life if you’re listening for radio signals. On Earth, that took 4.5 billion years to happen.”

Turnbull’s task: rule out the stars that weren’t good candidates. At the same time, she vastly lengthened the target list through her analysis of other stars that SETI hadn’t yet considered.

“They had a few thousand stars that they were looking at, but now we could look at tens of thousands of stars that we knew were good, high-quality targets,” she says.

Her work became the Catalog of Potentially Habitable Stellar Systems, or HABCAT, as it’s better known. Then she added data from other catalogs, including information on stellar composition. To create planetary bodies and living organisms, you need a star rich in heavy metals — that rules out many of the older stars that lack heavy metal content. During Turnbull’s four years at SETI, her database grew, eventually encompassing more than 1 million stars.

On a recent visit to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Turnbull consults with researcher Brian Skiff (sitting) and astronomer Gerard van Belle (standing). Photo: Andri Pol.

On a recent visit to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Turnbull consults with researcher Brian Skiff (sitting) and astronomer Gerard van Belle (standing). Photo: Andri Pol.

“I kept coming up with new questions to ask about the stars,” she says.

Turnbull’s contributions have been key to the search for planets outside our solar system, says Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“She’s known as the person who knows the most about the list of target stars,” Seager says.

Not everyone gets Turnbull’s interest in extraterrestrial life. “I had really mixed reactions,” she says. “My parents were always very supportive. My parents are more imaginative people, pretty flexible thinkers. … I’m sure others thought, ‘The probability of detecting an alien signal is so small, and is that really a good use of your abilities and efforts?’ ”

Those are the same sorts of questions Jodie Foster’s character encounters in Contact. Turnbull loves how the main character’s discovery turns the world upside down, and that possibility, however remote, is her own motivation.

“To me, that is what would make science worth doing,” Turnbull says. “I realized there was nothing else in all of science or in all of astronomy that I could do that could potentially have that big of an impact on humanity. … Everything else pales in comparison. And why would you do something that pales?”

Still, Turnbull is quick to poke gentle fun at herself and Hollywood’s influence on her life.

“For whatever reason, I was sort of innocent and wide-eyed enough to take that idea very seriously, whereas most of my peers would’ve thought it was a fun idea, but extremely far-fetched, and gone on to do more realistic things. That’s what most people would’ve done and have done. I know a lot of people who have seen the movie Contact and their lives weren’t changed,” she says with a smile.

After earning her doctorate, Turnbull did an astrobiology postdoc at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. Then she was hired as an assistant astronomer at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages the Hubble Space Telescope. She helped support the Hubble’s last servicing mission and found the work interesting.

And yet, she started to have doubts again. “After a while, I began to feel like I didn’t really belong at a big institute,” she says. “I felt like it wasn’t quite the environment that I could see myself in long term, which caused yet another identity crisis. I went through all of that, and I actually got a job, and it was a good job, and I didn’t want it. I had to come up with an idea of what the alternative would be, because there was no other institute in the world I’d rather be at — that place is doing amazing things.”

At the same time, she was homesick for family, for the simple pleasures of her childhood in northern Wisconsin. “I realized that I wanted a much bigger life than just astronomy,” she says. “As amazing and fantastic as astronomy and astrobiology are, academic research does not encompass enough of the human experience for me to feel like I’m living a happy and well-rounded life. I just felt the need for a major course correction.”

She resigned after just six months and decided to invent a new life as a freelance astrobiologist at her own nonprofit organization, the Global Science Institute. The same day she decided to resign, the phone rang. It was Webster Cash, a professor from the Department of Astrophysical and Biological Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he wanted to know if she would lead a science team for the New Worlds Observer, a proposed mission to detect Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Her new adventure had begun.

Andri Pol.

The New Worlds Observer is just a concept for now, centered on the idea of a space telescope that would travel with something called a starshade. The unique design of the petal-shaped starshade is engineered to block powerful starlight so that a telescope can capture images of fainter objects nearby. “It’s a really cool design for an observatory, and it has a lot of advantages over trying to block the starlight once it’s already in the telescope, which is the way that it works now,” Turnbull explains.

“The Hubble has an internal coronagraph to block out the light of really bright stars so that it can see the things around them,” she says. But it can’t see something as small as an Earth-like planet, “and certainly not a habitable planet, because habitable planets are very close to the star. So it would have to be a new telescope with really good optics and a really good starshade.”

NASA recently selected the starshade concept as a possible use for a Hubble-class spy satellite that it acquired from the National Reconnaissance Office, but the project is now on hold indefinitely due to lack of funding. “It’s a matter of waiting for NASA to decide, are we going to have a dedicated mission to do something like this or not?” Turnbull says. “And funding is getting tighter and tighter by the minute.”

In the meantime, Turnbull continues to submit grant proposals to fund her work, competing with scientists who have the clout of large universities and institutes behind them.

“It probably doesn’t help me that I’m at a tiny, one-woman nonprofit organization, but I don’t think that it’s made my life impossible either,” says Turnbull, who currently has funding from NASA and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Colleagues aren’t surprised that Turnbull succeeds on her own. “She does really creative and interesting things all the time,” Cash says. “You would think that all scientists are bubbling with creative ideas, but Maggie’s level of creativity is quite rare. It’s a talent she was born with, and she’s figured out how to use it in her own way.”

And she pours that energy into her ongoing study of the stars that she believes are the best targets for habitable planets.

“I would just like to understand our nearest neighbors a lot better,” Turnbull says. “Is there a place relatively nearby in the neighborhood of the sun that is anything like Earth at all? Maybe there aren’t people walking around, but maybe there are. What if there are animals? Even if there was a planet that didn’t have life on it, but that could become habitable, what would that even look like? … We could find anything out there.”

Now she’s working with colleagues at the University of Arizona to collect data on the stellar ages of top targets by studying their rotation rates and activity levels. She occasionally joins them for a dusk-to-dawn observing run at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a totally different energy from her usual work environment.

“To be around that many astronomers puts you in a certain frame of mind that is hard to replicate when you’re by yourself in the woods,” she admits.

At the same time, Turnbull feels more connected to the real world in Antigo. Soon after moving back, she threw herself into community life, spearheading the drive for Antigo’s first farmers’ market and winning a spot on the Common Council. She teaches at the local technical college and is active in the Antigo Bow Club. A former vegetarian turned hunter, she’s proud of recently bringing down her first doe.

“In the real world, people are fighting for their survival,” she says of life in Antigo. “It’s not just academics complaining that Washington isn’t putting enough money into science. People are trying to actually stay alive and just be able to afford a roof over their heads.”

Seager, the professor at MIT, admires Turnbull’s attitude.

“Her unconventional approach to life is very refreshing,” Seager says. “She wanted to be a scientist, but only on her own terms.”

At the 100 Year Starship symposium, an event sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and focused on interstellar space exploration, Turnbull stood up and made her pitch for better instruments. Despite continued cuts to NASA’s budget, she sees that as the only way to make progress. “If you can give me a space telescope that is capable of finding Earth-like planets around nearby stars, then the [funding] problems are all solved. I can tell you where the habitable zones are, and private industry will take over,” she says. “Once the discovery has been made and you have destinations, then you will have desire. People will just have an unquenchable desire to go there. And when you have desire, you have success. You find a way to do it, with or without government funding.”

And what then? “Then we can take over the galaxy, and we can meet all the other civilizations that are out there,” she says with a laugh.

For now, she’s content to keep searching from her small corner of the universe.

Nicole Sweeney Etter, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Milwaukee.

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Can You See Me Now? Fri, 31 Aug 2012 21:23:31 +0000 Washburn_lens

Photo: Jeff Miller


Restoration specialist John Augustine cleans rust and debris from one of the telescope lenses — an achromatic doublet lens, to be specific — at Washburn Observatory. Augustine is an antique instrument specialist from Parkman, Ohio, and his work caps a two-decade restoration of the observatory, which was built in the 1880s. This lens assembly weighs about fifty pounds, and there’s no record that it had ever been cleaned before. Washburn is open to the public at least two nights each month.

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