NASA’s Exoplanet Detection: the Missions and Women Involved

March 2018

Briefing date: March 1, 2018 (3:30pm EST)


Dr. Emma Marcucci (Space Telescope Science Institute)


  • Dr. Elisa Quintana (NASA GSFC)

  • Dr. Jessie Christiansen (IPAC/Caltech)

  • Maura Fujieh (NASA Ames)

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This spring marks major milestones for two of NASA’s exoplanet detection missions: Kepler/K2 and TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). The Kepler Space Telescope has detected thousands of transiting planets since it started operations in 2009 by staring at an area around the Cygnus constellation. Continuing beyond its original mission lifetime, it began the K2 mission in 2014 to look at a different portion of the sky. It is expected to end operations this summer, at which time TESS will be starting its observations. TESS is expected to launch this spring and will spend two years doing an all-sky transit survey. The mission will focus on finding Earth and Super Earth-sized planets by observing light curves from 200,000 stars that are close to Earth.

In recognition of National Women’s History Month, this science briefing will be presented by women involved in these missions. In addition to talking about mission science, these women who are integrally involved with the missions will share their inspirations, stories, and experiences. An introduction to the citizen science project ‘Exoplanet Explorers’, designed to engage the public in detecting exoplanets for themselves, will also be covered.


Dr. Emma Marcucci is an Education and Outreach Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She received her Ph.D. in planetary geology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2013. As a Postdoctoral Fellow, she worked with satellite stereo images to derive topographic models of locations that lack good elevation information, such as locations in Alaska and on Mars and Mercury. Dr. Marcucci is now part of the Office of Public Outreach at STScI, sharing the science of Hubble and Webb with the general public and astrophysics content as a member of the Universe of Learning, an Astrophysics-based STEM learning and literacy program funded through NASA SMD.

Dr. Elisa Quintana is an Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and is a TESS Support Scientist, and Deputy Project Scientist for Communications for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. She was formerly a Research Scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, working on the Kepler Mission to detect and characterize exoplanets. She has been involved with the discovery of many ‘firsts’ in the exoplanet field, including the first rocky exoplanet, the first exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone, and the first Earth-sized exoplanet. She led the team that confirmed the first Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of another star. Elisa received a B.S. in Physics from the University of California, San Diego and a Masters in Aerospace Science and Physics and a PhD in Physics from the University of Michigan. Elisa was awarded the 2014 Lupe Ontiveros Dream Award and the 2015 Hispanic Engineers National Achievement Awards Scientist of the Year.

Dr. Jessie Christiansen is a Staff Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and Science Curator at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. She is involved in the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets via the NASA Kepler/K2 mission, paying specific attention to measuring how common Earth-like planets might be throughout the Milky Way. She is also involved in the planning for the upcoming NASA TESS mission, which will search the whole sky for the nearest planets to Earth. Prior to her current role, Jessie was a staff scientist with the NASA Kepler mission at the NASA Ames Research Center, and prior to that was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She received her PhD in 2008 in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of New South Wales, and her Bachelor of Science (Hons) from the Australian National University.

Maura Fujieh is the Project Manager for NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions at NASA Ames Research Center, where she is responsible for leading and managing the operation of the mission. Maura served as the Kepler/K2 Deputy Project Manager since 2014, before becoming the Project Manager in July 2017. She has worked on a wide variety of other NASA programs and projects since 2002. Prior to joining Kepler/K2, her experience included working on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) mission and a number of aeronautics research and development programs and projects. Before joining NASA, Maura consulted on a variety of defense and commercial aerospace projects and programs in both the public and private sectors.