New Worlds: NASA’s Search for Exoplanets

December 2016

Briefing date: December 1, 2016 (3:30pm)


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Nikole Lewis (STScI)

  • Dr. Stephen Rinehart (NASA GSFC)

  • Mary Dussault (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

  • Dr. Kevin Stevenson (STScI)

 Slide presentation:

Transcript and audio recording:

Additional resources:

  • NASA Wavelength resources* (PDF file) 378 KB
    *Due to changes in the NASA Wavelength resource database, please use the attached resource PDF in lieu of URLs listed in slides. Original activity URLs should operate as normal.


Please join us for this month’s Universe of Learning science briefing as we explore how several NASA astrophysics missions are leading the effort to answer the age-old question "Are we alone?" Scientists have discovered thousands of new worlds, dubbed exoplanets, orbiting around other stars or, in some cases, traveling alone through space without a stellar host. During this briefing, exoplanet experts working on NASA exoplanet missions will explain how astronomers go about finding these alien worlds. The current census of exoplanets will be described, as well as the future of exoplanet detecting missions within NASA. For those seeking an authentic experience of searching for exoplanets, we will also introduce an interactive activity where the general public can use a robotic telescope to detect exoplanets using the same techniques as professional astronomers.


Dr. Nikole Lewis is an Assistant Astronomer at STScI. She probes exoplanet atmospheres using a combination of observational and theoretical techniques. She is involved with a number of ground- and space-based observational campaigns aimed at characterizing exoplanet atmospheres. Dr. Lewis is currently the Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope at STScI and a member of the formulation science working group for the WFIRST mission. Dr. Lewis received her B.S. in Physics and Mechanical Engineering for Worcester Polytechnic Institute, her M.A. in Astronomy from Boston University, and her Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the University of Arizona. She was a Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT before arriving at STScI in 2014.

Dr. Stephen Rinehart is an Astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). His science interests include star formation, stellar evolution, and exoplanets. To pursue this research, Dr. Rinehart has helped design, build, and test instrumentation for space telescopes. He is currently the Project Scientist for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an Explorer mission designed to search for exoplanets around bright, nearby stars. He previously served as the Associate Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope during Servicing Mission 4. Dr. Rinehart also helps develop concepts for future space science missions, particularly for infrared astrophysics and interferometry. He is the Principal Investigator for the Balloon Experimental Twin Telescope for Infrared Interferometry (BETTII), a novel new experiment designed to explore the earliest stages of star formation and to pave the technological path for future space observatories. Dr. Rinehart received his B.S. in Physics from MIT, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell University. He has been at NASA since 2004. Dr. Rinehart lives just outside Washington D.C. with his wife Dr. Aki Roberge, a NASA astronomer in the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory, their 5-year old daughter Hoshi, and their dog Charley.

Mary Dussault is an Instructional Systems Specialist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) where she directs a number of national astronomy and physical science education and outreach projects funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, and various foundations. Through her exhibition and education program development work at the CfA, and her prior work at Boston's Museum of Science, Dussault has over 30 years of experience researching and developing inquiry-based science learning experiences for a variety of settings: designed spaces and informal learning environments, for the classroom, and for teacher professional-development programs. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Astronomy from Wellesley College, and a Master's degree in History of Science from the Harvard University Extension School.

Dr. Kevin Stevenson is an ESA/AURA Research Astronomer at STScI. He is interested in characterizing the architectures and atmospheres of extrasolar planets and developing a classification scheme to better understand their nature and origin. To achieve this goal, he uses ground- and space-based telescopes to determine the orbits, compositions, and chemical properties of transiting exoplanets as they pass in front of or behind their parent stars. Dr. Stevenson received his B.S. in Physics at Simon Fraser University, his Masters in Astronomy from the University of Western Ontario, and his Ph.D. in Physics/Planetary Sciences from the University of Central Florida. He was a Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago before arriving at STScI in mid-2016.