Want to experience alien life? Enlist the help of the public.

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Want to experience alien life? Enlist the help of the public.

NASA’s Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman ’95 works with amateur astronomers to research planets beyond our solar system where life can thrive.

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech) / Collage: Jessica Tanny

A series of Blissymbols icons come alive on a NASA artist’s rendering of the hot, rocky exoplanet called 55 Cancri e.

By Bobbie NormanJuly 1, 2021

NASA needs the public’s help to study the planets beyond our solar system. Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman ’95 leads the recruiting effort.

In 2019, she started managing outreach activities for Exoplanète watch, a project sponsored by NASA’s Learning Universe efforts to promote learning and literacy in astrophysics.

The program asks amateur astronomers and university astronomy students to turn their telescopes to the stars in search of planets throughout our galaxy.

The only problem is that there are billions of potential candidates. Finding just one can also be time consuming. Thus, it behooves Zimmerman-Brachman to rally and inspire the public to support the effort.

Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman '95

Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman

“Space education and awareness is all about building enthusiasm in others for science and space,” Zimmerman-Brachman said. “I have always loved space and I love to share my knowledge of the planets with students and the public,” she said.

Zimmerman-Brachman was born in Canada. At 12, she invented the Symbol of happiness Printer for her science fair project in seventh grade. The device allows non-speaking people to use a touchpad to select symbols which are then translated into written text and printed on paper. Symbols of happiness are still used today.

After graduating in physics at Brandeis and obtaining a master’s degree in space studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, she repeatedly applied to become an astronaut. She worked on the space vision system for the International Space Station at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Quebec.

She then moved to California to work as a public engagement specialist at NASA Jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where she spent 11 years working on the Mission Cassini to Saturn. Zimmerman-Brachman now spends much of his time coordinating the citizen science project Exoplanet Watch.

Exoplanets, short for extrasolar planets, are planets located beyond our solar system. Because they orbit other stars, they are far too far away to send space probes to explore directly.

Scientists are particularly interested in finding planets that could potentially support life. The most likely candidates are planets orbiting their stars at a distance that makes the temperature range on the planet suitable for the existence of liquid water.

To date, scientists have identified and confirmed the existence of more than 4,400 exoplanets, but that number is expected to rise to tens of thousands over the decade.

“When I was a student at Brandeis, exoplanets had not yet been discovered. It wasn’t until a few months after I graduated in 1995 that the first exoplanet was discovered. Once we learned to look for them, astronomers started finding exoplanets almost everywhere, ”Zimmerman-Brachman said.

JPL astronomers primarily use the planetary transit method to detect exoplanets. Using space telescopes orbiting the Earth like Kepler and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), they monitor the attenuation of a star’s light that occurs when an exoplanet passes in front of it.

Scientists are fighting over the time to use these telescopes. Planetary transits can take several hours.

By including space enthusiasts around the world in the search for exoplanets, JPL can effectively monitor many other planetary transits. These citizen scientists help observe exoplanets in transit and collect data on the precise moment of transit.

Zimmerman-Brachman isn’t sure if we’ll ever find alien life, but if we do, she said it might take the public’s help to find it.

“We design these projects with the public in mind, so that everyone can contribute to a better understanding of our universe,” she said.


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