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Aki Roberge - Looking for Life In All the Right Places
October 29, 2013

[image-51]Name: Aki Roberge
Title: Research Astrophysicist
Organization: Code 667, Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory, Science and Exploration Directorate

Astrophysicist Aki Roberge is looking for life in all the right places on other planets.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I view myself as an astronomer who wears two hats. While wearing one of these hats, I use NASA’s space telescopes to observe the environments around young stars where we think planets are forming to try and understand the birth of planets. I don’t usually find new planet-forming environments so much as I dig into the details about ones that we have just discovered. We don’t observe the young forming planets directly because they are embedded in dense disks of gas and dust, the material that forms both the host stars and the planets around them. But we are able to study the building blocks for new planets. I use data from current missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope for these studies.

While wearing my other hat, I work on the early stages of mission conception, focusing on new questions about planets around stars other than our sun (exoplanets). Questions in hand, I conduct investigations to help NASA plan and prepare future missions to answer them.

What is a potential new mission you are thinking about doing?

Along with many other scientists, I have been planning for a future NASA space telescope that could detect the atmospheric signatures of life on a planet around a nearby star. Indirectly, we could then determine whether or not life exists on that planet. Some of these atmospheric signatures in Earth’s atmosphere include ozone, which comes from green plants, and methane, which is emitted by rotting plant matter and livestock.

Why did you become an astrophysicist?

I’ve always been interested in science, largely through a love of science fiction. Physics is a fundamental science, and astronomy ties it to my love of science fiction.

You came to Goddard as a post-doctoral fellow and remain now as an employee. Do you find that there is a difference working here in these two capacities?

As a post-doctoral fellow, I was here to do research focused on projects that I had proposed. But as an employee, I am always drawn in many directions including areas new to me. Also, I am now responsible for supporting two graduate students whom I’m advising. Such is the natural lifecycle of scientists.

What is the one thing you would tell a new scientist starting their career at Goddard?

Take advantage of opportunities to do new things outside your area of expertise. Even if you have not been formally trained to do something, you would be surprised at what you really can do. It helps keep both you and your research fresh.

What is the most interesting fact you have discovered about the planet-formation process?

In certain planet-forming disk systems, the ones that are probably forming rocky terrestrial planets like our own, you can see the signs of massive collisions between large asteroids and comets. The signs include vaporized gas resulting from the collisions. A rocky planet is built up out of lots and lots of collisions between large asteroids, so these massive collisions could be earths in formation. Our own moon was formed by a huge collision between the young Earth and a Mars-sized body, so these massive collisions could also be forming moons.

Do you think anyone will discover life on another planet?

I think it very likely that life exists on other worlds. I don’t even think it is necessarily rare. However, the most common life on earth is not humans, it is bacteria and plants. It is probable that any life we might find would be more like them than like us. Discovering such life on another planet is hard, but we have ideas about how to do it.

How do you view scientific collaboration?

As scientists, we are all ants, each carrying our own crumb of the cake. This is particularly true at NASA because we do big missions that take decades to build and large numbers of diverse experts from many fields to build them.

Your husband, Stephen, is an astrophysicist at Goddard too. What do you talk about at dinner?

Work! We talk about the science and all the other things that go into our jobs. This is not a chore; we can hardly stop talking about it. In fact, we named our almost two-year-old daughter Hoshi, which means “star” in Japanese, both to honor my mother, who is Japanese, and to reflect our mutual love of astronomy.

What’s your favorite hobby?

Reading! I read widely including science fiction, fantasy, mysteries and non-fiction histories. I often read a book a day. Yesterday I read “The Squire’s Tale” by Margaret Frazer, a mystery set in medieval England starring a nun detective.

How do you find time to work all day, care for your baby, and spend time with your husband?

We are very fortunate that my mother lives with us and helps tremendously in caring for our daughter, especially during the day while we are working. We are very lucky and grateful.

Do you expect Hoshi will grow up to become an astrophysicist?

To be a scientist requires a certain amount of creativity. So I think there is a relationship between scientific and artistic ability. My husband’s parents and siblings are all musicians. My late father was a potter and my mother makes hand-dyed silk. Hoshi could go in any direction, though it would make me happy if she became a scientist. I just want her to find something that she loves and do it well.

What are your big dreams?

To discover life on another planet and to see humans colonize Mars. If the whole family could go, then I’d love to go to the Red Planet and help begin to make it green with life.

Read the Conversations With Goddard about her husband, Stephen Rinehart.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Aki Roberge
Photo of Aki Roberge.
Image Credit: 
NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Page Last Updated: October 29th, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner