Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Exoplanet Sleuth Behind NASA's Kepler Mission

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Space scientist William "Bill" Borucki is a soft-spoken, pleasant person who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where he liked to build and launch rockets. He still does, and he convinced NASA to build and launch Kepler, the first spacecraft capable of finding Earth-size planets orbiting other stars.

Bill displays a number of similarities to another mild-mannered Midwesterner, a guy named Clark Kent. As the force behind what many call "NASA's coolest mission," Bill summoned veritable superpowers to get the innovative Kepler mission off the ground. Knowing what he and his team have accomplished, you get the feeling there might be a giant "S" hiding under that unassuming shirt and tie.

While Superman could fly to other worlds with relative ease, he didn't have to navigate the maze of changing requirements, reallocated funding, technical issues, and political challenges that Bill has helped steered the Kepler mission through. Even with X-ray vision, he might not have been able to foresee the obstacles. But he was there to watch his dream come true on March 6 when the Kepler spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral, faster than a speeding bullet, on its way to search for other habitable worlds.

Bill grew up in Delevan, Wisconsin, a great place for a boy who loved science and building things. He was president of the school's science club - the students liked to reject the teacher's suggestions for projects and pursue their own ideas. "We decided to build a transmitter to contact UFOs," he said, "so I built the ultraviolet transmitter and others built the visible and infrared transmitters and a magnetometer. I don't think any of them worked all that well, but we had a great time. I learned so much trying to build these things. You don't always have to succeed to learn a lot."

Young Bill also belonged to a rocket club, and he got interested in amateur radio and building electronic equipment and antennae. He enjoyed communicating with other people around the world. Bill remembers the very dark night sky and how it lit up with stars during the new moon. He and his friends built telescopes and cameras to photograph the stars. In the summertime, they rode their bicycles to the Yerkes Observatory at nearby Lake Geneva to look through the 40-inch telescope. "Great big things were nice to look at," he said, "but the fun was to build things yourself from your own ideas, because then you understood how they worked."

His parents were not science-oriented but they were encouraging. Bill and his father built everything from a backyard tower to hold his antenna to soapbox derby cars and model airplanes. Bill attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and he found college to be a wonderful experience. He especially enjoyed meeting people with different ideas.

Bill earned both a B. S. and M. S. in physics, then applied for a job at NASA, the only place he considered. "I wanted to work on spacecraft," he recalled, "and NASA was it." He got offers from both NASA's Ames Research Center in Northern California and Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland. His father advised him to go west, and he's been at Ames ever since. "I've really enjoyed working at NASA. It has always been fascinating," he said. "It's a great way to go through life, attacking worthwhile problems with a good team."

In his early years at Ames, he conducted studies on the radiation environment of entry vehicles. When he found that the existing spectrograph didn't work for the types of extreme tests they were conducting, he designed and built a new one. The results of his investigations were used in the design of the heat shields to protect the Apollo astronauts during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Next he worked in the Theoretical Studies Branch where they studied the atmospheres of Earth and other planets and built theoretical models of the atmosphere to understand how mankind's influence would change it. His group published many papers on how ozone would be affected by nitrogen oxides. "We didn't predict a hole in the ozone layer," he said, "but we did predict that the decrease would be seen first at the poles."

Another area of Bill's research concerned the effects of lightning activity in planetary atmospheres. He conducted a variety of laboratory studies and participated in spacecraft observations to determine the amount and distribution of lightning activity on other planets. He also earned a second M. S. in meteorology.

During this time Bill's interests merged. He focused his knowledge of spectroscopy and photometry and his theoretical studies of planetary atmospheres into thinking about how photometry and spectrometry could be used to find other planets.

These revolutionary ideas resulted in a paper he published in 1984, "The photometric Method of Detecting Other Planetary Systems." The following year he published "Detectability of Extrasolar Planetary Transits." He pursued his ideas with patience and persistence and developed experimental systems to prove the transits method of finding extrasolar planets. In 2000 he proposed a planet-finding mission to NASA, in response to a call for Discovery mission proposals. The Kepler Mission was selected as the 10th Discovery Mission in December 2001.

Kepler encountered many unforeseen and unpredictable delays throughout the various development phases. "We're doing something new that's never been done," he said. "It means there are going to be surprises and difficulties to surmount. We have a wonderful team of people from Ames, JPL, universities, non-profits and other NASA centers. I admire very much the people at NASA Headquarters who supported us through all our difficulties. It's been great working with everyone."

Kepler has 28 co-investigators on the science team and dozens of other collaborators. In Europe a team of over 200 scientists has formed the Kepler Astreroseismic Science Consortium. They will use Kepler data for the first time to see what's going on inside a star - how fast it rotates, how much of the hydrogen has been burned, and the star's density.

Bill's family joined him to witness the launch in Florida. He met his wife in college, and they have 3 daughters and 8 grandkids. "I've been working on this idea for 25 years," he said, "so my kids and grandkids have heard about it since they were born. They were delighted to be at the launch, which was magnificent. The solid rockets looked like sparklers as they fell away from the rocket. It was like the spirit of all the team was being launched into space after dedicating so much time and effort to get it into orbit."

The Kepler Mission has dominated Bill's life in recent times, often 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. He said that seeing Kepler launch and knowing it will answer a very big question - "Are there lots of Earths out there or are we alone?" - is tremendously satisfying and worth the 25 years of effort and sacrifice that's been required. Everyone is very excited about looking at the results and understanding the implications. The first download of science data was received in June and the search for planets has begun.

Bill's advice for students who have an interest in space exploration is to take the core subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering. "But you also need to take courses to make sure you can write and speak well," he said. "You will spend a lot of time communicating your ideas and interacting with others to solve problems. If you can't inspire others to work on these ideas with you, you'll never do it by yourself. You really need to speak clearly about your goals and why they're important."

Bill sets a great example for pursuing your dreams, convincing others of their value, and persevering to realize your goals. He looks forward to seeing what questions the next group of young scientists will ask and what answers they will uncover.

Scientists, computer scientists, engineers and educators at the SETI Institute are a part of Bill Borucki's team for the Kepler Mission.


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