News from the Universe: NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

March 2017

Briefing date: March 2, 2017 (3:30pm)


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Sean Carey (IPAC)

  • Dr. Nikole Lewis (STScI)

  • Dr. Robert Hurt (IPAC)

  • Carolyn Slivinski (STScI)

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One of the primary goals for the missions that support NASA astrophysics is to answer the question “Are we alone in the universe?" Now, an exciting new result from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope gives us new targets for exploring that question. For this month’s Universe of Learning Science Briefing, we explore the discovery by Spitzer of the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are located in an area called the "habitable zone," the area around the star where liquid water is most likely to thrive on a rocky planet. The system sets a new record for most number of habitable zone planets in a stellar system. Furthermore, any of these seven planets could have liquid water, key to life as we know it. Additionally, other NASA astrophysics missions are exploring this system, including Hubble and Kepler, and in the near future, JWST will be able to tell us about the content of the atmospheres of these worlds. Please join us for this briefing where you will have an opportunity to ask questions directly from scientists involved with studying this system, a discussion of the artwork and videos that were created from this discovery, and strategies for engaging your audiences with this news.


Dr. Sean Carey is the manager of the Spitzer Science Center, which is part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. “I have been interested in space and astronomy since watching the first lunar landing when I was three. My current day job is coordinating the day to day activities of the Spitzer Science Center, which handles all aspects of science operations with Spitzer from handling the science proposals, to scheduling the observations, through processing the data and providing user documentation and expert support. We are responsible for the calibration of the data and helping astronomers around the world make the best possible use of the infrared images taken. Observing transiting exoplanets is a particular challenge, as we are interested in very small changes (parts per million) in the observed brightness of the host star. I have been lucky enough to help in designing new ways of using Spitzer to characterize planets around other stars. As part of my job, I get to troubleshoot problems with the observatory, which is quite a challenge as Spitzer is now 140 million miles away. For my own personal research, I map our Galaxy in the infrared to help understand where and how stars form, and I help find and characterize planets using Spitzer to study transiting exoplanets and planets detected through microlensing. When I can make it outside, I enjoy playing and coaching soccer.”

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 from 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. Robert Hurt is an astronomer and visualization scientist working at Caltech/IPAC in support of a number of NASA astrophysics missions including the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kepler, WISE, and NuSTAR. His focus is public communication of science through visual representations of data, illustration, and animation.

Carolyn Slivinski is a Community Engagement Specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, where she works to connect the informal education community with a wide range of resources. Carolyn first discovered informal education working for a science museum, after beginning her career as an engineer performing spacecraft analyses for a leading satellite manufacturer. She has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Rutgers University.