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Student wins NASA fellowship to help hunt for Earth-like planet with future space telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to 26-year-old Hubble, will be the largest and most powerful ever sent into orbit when it blasts off in the fall of 2018.

To prepare for Webb’s decade in space in search of a planet that could support life, NASA selected a University of Toledo PhD student studying small stars and the exoplanets closely orbiting them to join the team.

Kevin Hardegree-Ullman will contribute to choosing which planets the new space telescope will observe.

Kevin Hardegree-Ullman“There is going to be a lot of competition between astronomers for time on that telescope, which has an enormous gold-coated mirror and is much larger than Hubble,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “Before Webb launches, we will choose the best stretches of sky to look for another Earth-like planet. The best candidates are around low-mass stars that are less than half the size of the sun. Those are the stars that I have been focused on for years. This is an awesome opportunity.”

Because of his published work and experience collecting data about brown dwarfs using the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hardegree-Ullman won a NASA Graduate Fellowship that will pay for him to work with NASA scientists for six months.

In January Hardegree-Ullman heads to the NASA Infrared Processing and Analysis Center for Infrared Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., to identify a handful of locations to target in our galaxy where it’s most possible to find planets with water.

“We’ve already identified a bunch of star systems with planet candidates,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “My job will be to make sure there is a planet there using the data from the Spitzer Telescope and then figure which of these planets are the best to look at in follow-up observations with the future telescope.”

Hardegree-Ullman is the second UT PhD student in astronomy to recently win one of these competitive awards. Aditya Togi won the same NASA Graduate Fellowship in 2014.

“Kevin will get to interact with some of the best scientists in the world in an entirely new academic environment – something graduate students very rarely get to do,” said Mike Cushing, associate professor of astronomy and director of UT’s Ritter Planetarium and Hardegree-Ullman’s faculty advisor.

Hardegree-Ullman worked as a NASA Space Grant intern in 2011 while an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. He studied a specific molecule in interstellar clouds where stars form.

The PhD student now hunts for exoplanets by identifying dimming patterns caused when a planet blocks out a portion of a star’s light.

“It’s easier to find a smaller planet around a smaller star,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “Low-mass stars have a lower temperature, and that means a habitable planet has to orbit a lot closer to the star. It’s beneficial to an astronomer because you might only have to wait a couple weeks to watch the transit and find an Earth-size planet that could potentially contain water. You can determine size and radius monitoring the star’s light output. With a star the size of the sun, you have to wait an entire year.”

“Winning this fellowship highlights the caliber of scientist that Kevin has become during his time at UT,” Cushing said.

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is a Media Relations Specialist. Contact her at 419.530.2077 or christine.long2@utoledo.edu.
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