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Stephen Rinehart Scouts for Exoplanets
October 22, 2013

[image-51]Name: Stephen Rinehart
Title: Associate Chief, Laboratory for Observational Cosmology
Formal Job Classification: Astrophysicist
Organization: Code 665, Astrophysics Science Division

Astronomer Stephen Rinehart readies for the launch of TESS which will aid in his search for exoplanets.

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

I have three jobs rolled into one. My most important job right now is as the Project Scientist for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission. We are searching the whole sky for exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars because these planets are among the easiest to see and study outside of our solar system. Exoplanets are any planets not within our solar system.

So far, astronomers have found over 800 exoplanets, ranging from planets smaller than Mercury to super giants larger than Jupiter. The problem is that the vast majority of those planets are around relatively faint stars, so they are hard to see. What’s exciting about TESS is that we will search for exoplanets around nearby, bright stars, so that the exoplanets that we find will be relatively easy to study. We plan to launch in 2017. The TESS instrument will have four cameras, each of which will have its own telescope. The exoplanets we hope to find with TESS will be wonderful targets for our ground-based telescopes and the James Webb Space Telescope to study further. We’re the exoplanet scouts. I’m tremendously excited about the fantastic discoveries we’ll make with TESS!

In addition, I am the principal investigator for the Balloon Experimental Twin Telescope for Infrared Interferometry, which will study the beginnings of star formation.

I am also the Associate Chief for the Laboratory for Observational Cosmology, which studies the history of the universe.

Why did you take a job at Goddard?

At the time, I was looking for a place to do a second post-doctoral fellowship. I had a two-hour lunch with Dr. John Mather, who is one of the world’s nicest guys. We talked about the future of astronomy and instruments. He told me that I should come to work here and I did. But I stayed because this is the best place in the world for me. I get excited about new ideas for missions, new ways to explore pushing boundaries and working at the interface between science and engineering–and that’s what I do every single day.

Who is the most interesting, inspiring or amazing person you have met or worked with at Goddard? 

My wife, Aki Roberge, an astronomer, works around the corner from me and is the most inspiring person I’ve ever known. We met at a conference in 2004, she came to Goddard in 2005 as a post-doctoral fellow and we married in 2006. She is at the top of my long list of inspiring people because, on a daily basis, she makes me think, she pushes me to be more creative and she makes me ask questions that I might not have thought of on my own. We have a two-year-old daughter named Hoshi, which is Japanese for “star.” What else would two astrophysicists name their child? 

What was your best day at Goddard?

I worked on the BETTII proposal for about four years. The day that I found out that BETTII was funded was one of my best days here. I called the entire team together and we celebrated.

Why did you become an astrophysicist?

At some level, I think astrophysics chose me. When I was a kid, I loved challenges and wanted to do something that would always be challenging. I come from a family of musicians. While I can sing and can play the French horn, I knew that what I really wanted to do was science. By the age of six, I also knew that I wanted to go to college at MIT. I really wanted to understand how the universe works. I went into physics and from there had opportunities to work in astrophysics. It was so exciting and fun that I couldn’t imagine doing anything different.

From your perspective as an astrophysicist, what is the difference between a physicist and an engineer?

Engineers are all about how to make things work. Physicists want to know how and why things work.

Do you have a favorite way or place to kick back, relax or have fun?

My wife and I like to cook. After coming home from work, cooking dinner together is a great way to be together and to shift mental gears. I specialize in barbecue ribs and she makes great pollo a la Marengo, a Spanish chicken and tomato dish which was created for Napoleon.

If you could invite six people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and what would be your first question for each? 

Leonardi da Vinci. I’d ask him about inspiration.

Charles Darwin. I’d ask him about his travels.

Aristotle. I’d ask him what he thinks about how civilization has evolved since his time.

Julia Childs. I’d ask her how she likes dinner.

Thomas Jefferson. I’d ask him if our current system of government was what he had intended.

Tom Waits. He is the only one on the list who is still alive, and I’d try to persuade him to sing for us. Or convince him to go on tour one more time.

What one word or phrase best describes you?


Read the Conversations With Goddard about his wife, Aki Roberge.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Stephen Rinehart
Photo of Stephen Rinehart
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NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Page Last Updated: October 29th, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner