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Natalie Batalha Talks About Hunting Exoplanets with Kepler

Season 1Jun 14, 2017

A conversation with one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Natalie Batalha, the Kepler mission project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

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Natalie Batalha

A conversation with one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Natalie Batalha, the Kepler mission project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.


Matthew Buffington (Host):You are listening to episode 44 of the NASA in Silicon Valley podcast. This is a special episode and a preview of more to come next week. Today’s guest is NASA Kepler mission project scientist Natalie Batalha. Natalie was recently selected for TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. We discuss her early career, the Kepler mission, and the life of an exoplanet hunter. This is all a nice preview for next week when NASA will host the Kepler Science Conference right here in Silicon Valley. So as a special treat, instead on the normal podcast next week, we are going to release two conversations with other Kepler scientists and are doing a bit of a flash back to a previously released podcast recorded back in 2009 before the space telescope launched. So keep an eye on this feed next week for more Kepler updates and let’s now listen to our conversation with Natalie Batalha.


Host: We always start it off the same way. I want to get to know you a little bit better. So how did you join NASA? What brought you to Silicon Valley?

Natalie Batalha:Oh, gosh, that’s a long story.

Host: Yeah, it’s a long story. And I think it has something to do with looking at sunspots or spots, something.

Natalie Batalha:Well, that was my original research. Yeah.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:A lot of us in those early days who were first discovering planets started out as stellar astrophysicists. And that’s because the way you infer the existence of a planet is by observing some peculiarity about the star itself.

Right? So, for example, the wobble method. You’re looking at the star wobble back and forth spectroscopically due to the tug of the planet that’s orbiting it. Or in the case of Kepler, you’re looking at a dimming of light of the star itself that occurs if a planet passes in front. So in order to infer the existence of planet, you have to understand the star really, really well.

Host: And so were you already a part of NASA, like straight out of school?

Natalie Batalha:No, not at all.

Host: Or were you working on this stuff before you came over? Like you were waiting for, Bill Borucki called you and wanted to start working?

Natalie Batalha:No, I called him.

Host: Nice.

Natalie Batalha:No. So I was a graduate student at UC [University of California] Santa Cruz, studying star spots on young suns, kind of like teenager suns. And we were using the Keck telescope, which had just been commissioned. In fact, my advisor built one of the premier instruments on the Keck telescope. And I used that to study these star spots on young suns.

And then went to Brazil for a short post-doctoral research fellowship there. And as I was doing my postdoctoral research, I became aware of this idea that Bill Borucki at NASA Ames had, which was to use the transit method to find planets. And I knew also that he wanted to find not just giant planets, but Earth-size planets, which was something that hadn’t been done.

And so I was really interested in that, because from my perspective of studying spots, my first thought was, “Wow, you’re seeing spots rotated in and out of view. That changes the total brightness of a star in and of itself. How can you disentangle the signal of a planet from a spot?” Right?

So I sent an email to Bill and asked him about that. Yeah, I’m really interested in this. I study spots on sun-like stars, and I’m curious to know if that’s an issue for you as you’re planning out this or thinking about this new technique.

Host: So Santa Cruz. So I’m guessing, did you grow up in California?

Natalie Batalha:I did. You know, I’m a

Host: Were you always looking at the stars and wanted to…?

Natalie Batalha: – product of public education in California from kindergarten all the way through Ph.D.

Host: Nice.

Natalie Batalha: Yeah. Grew up in the East Bay. Did my undergrad at [University of California] Berkeley and my grad at Santa Cruz.

Host: So I also imagine like when you went down to Brazil, that’s a whole different set of stars from what your area. You sent to the southern hemisphere.

Natalie Batalha:Everything’s upside-down. Yeah.

Host: Everything seems backwards. How was that?

Natalie Batalha:Very strange. Here, in the northern hemisphere, when we want to look at the zodiac, for example, or find the moon, you generally turn south. Right? In the southern hemisphere, you have to turn north. So it’s completely backwards.

Host: All your instincts are wrong.

Natalie Batalha:And like the Orion constellation, one of the most prominent in the sky that I’m used to seeing, was upside-down. So when you turn around north in order to see it, and even then it’s strange, because it’s upside-down. So that took some getting used to.

But you’re right, it does open up this whole new part of the sky. You can’t see the Big Dipper anymore, for example, because that’s too far north. But in compensation, you get Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross and the Coalsack [Nebula], the Magellanic Clouds, so many interesting things down there to see.

Host: Talk a little bit about when you first came over to Ames, when you first joined NASA. I’m guessing Kepler was still in its early stages at that point?

Natalie Batalha:It hadn’t even been approved as a mission yet.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. In fact, it had been proposed to NASA four times, because they were about to submit, or they were writing a proposal, the fifth proposal. And the reason I came out is because in response to my email, Bill Borucki said, “Well, as a matter of fact, this issue of star spots confounding us was exactly one of the reasons why our previous proposal was denied.” This was something that a stellar astrophysicist that was at NASA headquarters at the time brought up as a potential issue.

So he invited me to come and work on that problem. And so one of the first things I did was help to rewrite that section of the proposal.

Host: Oh, wow.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah.

Host: We talk a lot about Kepler. We talk a lot about exoplanets on the podcast. We have different people on your team here. So give kind of the overview. What is Kepler?

Natalie Batalha:What Kepler is?

Host: What is Kepler? For anybody who has no clue, they’re listening for the first time.

Natalie Batalha:Well, it’s a space telescope. We call it a photometer: “photo” “meter.” Photo is light, meter is to measure. So you’re measuring light. But with a space telescope, you’re using a mirror to collect a bunch a photons, and you focus those photons onto a detector that turns the photons into a voltage. And you measure that as a number. It tells you about the brightness.

But Kepler was NASA’s first mission capable of detecting an Earth-size planet – moreover a potentially habitable Earth-sized planet. So it was a piece of technology that was launched that was really new. It allowed us to look at the universe in a different way. And as a result, whenever you put a new piece of technology into space, or you build a new piece of technology to look at things in a new way, you’re going to learn a lot, even more than you perhaps set out to learn. And certainly that’s what Kepler did.

So the way that Kepler finds these planets is to measure the brightnesses of many stars simultaneously. And by “many,” I mean on the order of 200,000 – 150,000 to 200,000 stars – taking a brightness measurement simultaneously of all of these stars once every 30 minutes without blinking basically for four years.

Host: Taking in a ton of data in that process.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, it is a lot of data. That’s right. And so what you’re looking for in these brightness measurements every 30 minutes is a momentary diminution of light that occurs if a planet eclipses its star. Now, that’s not going to happen for all planets that are out there, because it requires a certain geometry. Right?

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:The orbit has to be inclined exactly right so that the planet in its orbit about the star casts a shadow that sweeps across the telescope perfectly. Right?

Host: Yes.

Natalie Batalha:And the telescope will perceive that shadow as a momentary dimming of light. So that’s how we infer the existence of these planets. And that’s what Kepler set out to do.

Host: Yeah. I think I remember hearing you talk one time about if you hold your palm at the night sky, you hold it up, that that kind of gives people an idea of the spot you’re looking into the sky.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, we’re surveying a slice of the galaxy. So we’re not looking over the whole entire sky. We’re looking at about a handprint on the sky, which is 100 square degrees, 10 by 10. And we’re just looking out about 3,000 light years along the spiral arm of our galaxy.

Host: And even thinking of the science that you get from a space telescope like this, you’re bringing in so much data, NASA’s looking at that data, the scientific community’s looking at this data. I’d imagine that it’s like after you’ve brought this stuff in and shared it, then it’s like the actual results and papers that come off of this then happen down that line. And so even long after the mission’s over, you’ll probably still have papers coming.

Natalie Batalha:Absolutely.

Host: Because when people finally get the time to dig through it all.

Natalie Batalha:Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s a latency between the time you collect the data and the time that it comes to fruition. And so the number of publications has gradually been ramping up year after year. And I expect, even after we turn off the lights and go home, it will continue to ramp up, maybe even for another 10 years or so. There’s a lot of information there yet to be gleaned.

Host: So it’s like the biggest results may still be yet to come.

Natalie Batalha:That’s true. Yeah, absolutely.

Host: Yeah. It’s just fascinating, because I’m sure for you, for your career, it’s like you come in looking at the stars, studying this stuff, and the books that you learned on, the textbooks have literally been rewritten —

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, that’s true.

Host: — to match the stuff that you found.

Natalie Batalha:Yes.

Host: That’s just completely fascinating.

Natalie Batalha:Literally. In fact, we’ve been asked for figures for new textbooks. That’s right. And that happened really quickly, because the change in knowledge was dramatic and quite quick. It was literally like a veil being removed, lifted from your eyes as we revealed the small planets that populate the galaxy that we couldn’t see before.

Host: Yeah. And I think even in some of the more recent – you think of the TRAPPIST announcement and stuff like that. I remember listening to you talk one time. And it was the idea that every star you see in the night sky very likely has at least one planet.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, every sun-like star, yeah, on average has at least one planet. That’s what we’ve learned from Kepler.

Host: And then you kind of wonder if you look at our own solar system of how many planets we have, you see what we learned from TRAPPIST, how many planets.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, seven-planet system.

Host: Exactly.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah.

Host: Then it makes you wonder maybe – you know, it’s just like another layer that we just haven’t confirmed it yet, but you never know. Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:Oh, yeah, absolutely. Even Kepler. So Kepler’s taking a survey of planets that are orbiting from an Earth orbit inward. Right?

Host: Mm-hmm.

Natalie Batalha:So the next mission – there is a mission on the books called WFIRST that will launch around 2025 that’s going to survey planet populations from kind of an Earth orbit outward.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:So that will help to complete the planetary census. But even then, there will be parts of parameter space that we’re still blind to. For example, we don’t really have sensitivity to see a Mars-sized or a Mercury-sized planet out at an Earth-like orbit. Those are really hard to see. Kepler didn’t have the sensitivity to see such tiny worlds. And yet, our solar system has two plus all the dwarf planets. Right?

Host: Exactly, yeah.

Natalie Batalha:So there’s a whole other population of objects out there that we don’t yet have sensitivity to.

Host: So let’s talk a little bit about the planets that you have confirmed. Like the very first rocky planet, you had a little something to do with that.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. That was a really special one. You’re referring to Kepler-10b.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:It was special, because we saw the signal in the first 10 days of data that we collected during the commissioning period. You launch an instrument out into space, or even if you build an instrument for a telescope, you hook it onto your telescope, or you launch it out into space, and you have to check it out and make sure everything was still working as you expected. That period of time is called commissioning.

And so we took some data during our commissioning period after Kepler launched. and when we examined that data, we saw the signal of Kepler-10b really by eye. We didn’t have to do anything –

Host: Really?

Natalie Batalha:– fancy.

Host: It just is right there.

Natalie Batalha:It just popped out. It was right there. Yeah. So that was really exciting. And we started following it up with ground-based telescopes right away. And the Keck 10-meter telescope gave us high-precision radial velocity measurements, which means it detected a Doppler signal, which allowed us to get the mass.

So Kepler, by studying the brightnesses in these eclipses, that gives you the radius of the planet. Right? How much the star dims in its light output, it depends on how big the planet is, the disk that’s blocking the light.

The Doppler method tells you how strongly a planet is pulling gravitationally.

Host: Okay, that –

Natalie Batalha:How strong it’s tugging on the star.

Host: – that wobble.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, that’s the wobble method. And that tells you about the mass. When you have those two quantities – mass and radius – you can compute the density, which is mass per unit volume.

Host: Awesome.

Natalie Batalha:And the density tells us something about the composition. And so it was because we had both of those things for Kepler-10b, we were able to pin down its composition as a rocky planet.

Host: That’s the stuff that I find really exciting, even just thinking in April of this year NASA did the announcement about water worlds and stuff, where it’s not just here’s one scientific instrument that kind of has one finding. It’s that combination of land-based telescopes, space telescopes. Sometimes you could even throw in SOFIA, a flying telescope.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, absolutely.

Host: It’s like when you start getting all of these data points and then you put it together, then there’s this stuff that you would have never figured out on your own.

Natalie Batalha:That’s right. That’s right. And these things weren’t planned. Right? For example, look at the Spitzer space telescope. Spitzer was not designed to find exoplanets. And yet, it’s been a tremendous complement to the Kepler telescope. The prime example is the TRAPPIST-1 system. The 20 days of observations by the Spitzer space telescope revealed additional planets in that system that were originally – you know, the system was originally identified from the ground. Spitzer opened up another window. And that led to the discovery of three new planets. And then K2 or Kepler came in and observed it and pinned down the orbital period and mass of the seventh planet.

So, yeah, you learn more by putting all of these resources together.

Host: So I’m curious to learn – you made reference to K2. Tell folks a little bit about the story –

Natalie Batalha:The infamous reaction wheels.

Host: – the drama that is the Kepler to K2. And also what’s going through your head in this process, from the scientific side, when you’re like, “[Yay], we built an instrument. Yay, it’s in space. Yay, it works.” Then also, “Oh, no.”

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. Little things happened along the way. Early on we lost one of the detectors. And that was within the first year or two. That was disappointing. But you keep going and we kept taking data. We lost one reaction wheel. But we had redundancy.

Host: You had four total.

Natalie Batalha:We had four. You need three. You need one reaction wheel to control each axis of rotation. Okay? We had four, so we had some redundancy built in, but we did lose one early on and now we were down to three.

Host: And you’re like, “Okay.”

Natalie Batalha:We kept going.

Host: We’re still good.

Natalie Batalha:And honestly I really wasn’t worried at any point in time. We just kind of kept taking data. And it was all fine. And then we got to the point where we finished our baseline mission, which was three and a half years. In fact, we went a little over. We took, almost to the day, four years’ worth of data.

At that point I breathed a sigh of relief.

Host: Relief.

Natalie Batalha:I knew the data was in our back pockets. We were going to be able to accomplish at least our –

Host: The mission.

Natalie Batalha:– basic mission goals. Yeah. But again, almost to the day, it took four years. In fact, it was on my birthday.

Host: Oh, wow.

Natalie Batalha:I was at lunch, sitting down, just about to take a bite of my birthday taco –

Host: Nice.

Natalie Batalha:– I got a text message from our project manager saying that another reaction wheel had died.

Host: Oh, no.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. So –

Host: Happy birthday.

Natalie Batalha:– I was disappointed, of course–

Host: Obviously.

Natalie Batalha:– because we had built a case up over the preceding months, telling a story that we needed additional data to really get to the true Earth analogs. We were hoping for another four years of data. So I had already internalized that plan. Right?

Host: It was already a fait accompli.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, it was already–

Host: Yeah, this is going to happen.

Natalie Batalha:– yeah, exactly. So we had to rethink that. But it didn’t concern me. I knew that we had the data that we needed and set about to analyze it.

Host: And then there’s a happy ending. It turns out you have really smart –

Natalie Batalha: Yeah.

Host: — creative engineers, who, you think, when they’re building telescope, it has to survive launch. It has to survive these harsh conditions. I would imagine you have to be very rigid and conservative and get things ever so perfectly. But now it’s like, hey, you have this thing. Like what can you do? Be creative. What can you come up with?

Natalie Batalha:We did think… at that moment, when we got that text message, we did think that was it.

Host: This is the end.

Natalie Batalha:That’s the end. Kepler’s no longer working. So it was a great surprise over the ensuing months, when the engineers came back and said, “You know, I think we make this work with just the two reaction wheels.”

Host: Oh, wow.

Natalie Batalha:And that was really a beautiful story that played out, to watch that unfold and see the creativity and innovation that came out. I thought it was a really innovative idea that they came up with. So, yeah.

Host: And instead of looking at the one patch that Kepler did, it’s almost if you think of it as a line across the sky or the elliptic, I guess.

Natalie Batalha:The ecliptic, yeah.

Host: ecliptic, okay.

Natalie Batalha:Which most people know as the zodiac.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:It’s the path that the sun traces out in the sky as the Earth orbits it. So basically it traces out the orbital plane of the planets on the sky. Yeah, and we call that the ecliptic. That’s where the zodiacal constellations are located.

Host: And does it ever pass with the part where Kepler was originally working in?

Natalie Batalha:No.

Host: Or it’s just nowhere close?

Natalie Batalha:No, nowhere close. Yeah, Kepler’s field is completely different orthogonal to that.

Host: But instead of one patch for four years, it’s covering a lot more territory, but probably it’s not spending as much time in those areas.

Natalie Batalha:It doesn’t spend as much time at each pointing, because the telescope has to be placed in a very specific orientation, relative to the sun. It’s basically using solar radiation pressure to stabilize the third axis of rotation.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:So the analogy is rowing a boat upstream. You point your boat upstream, and you’re trying to row against the current. You want to keep your boat pointed directly upstream. Yeah. If you tilt to one side or the other, you’re going to start to rotate.

And you’re going to get out of control. So because the telescope has to be pointed in a very specific orientation relative to the sun, as the spacecraft orbits the sun, it has to move – change its pointing. So it can stay pointing to a specific field of view for about 80 days. And then it’s orbited so much around the sun that it has to repoint. It has to change its orientation again in order to maintain that axis of symmetry.

So we’re observing these fields across the ecliptic, along the zodiac, for about 80 days each. And it’s really opened up new areas of science. So although we couldn’t increase our sensitivity to small planets by observing the same field over and over again, we’re learning new things and having new opportunities.

We see asteroids, for example, in the plane of the solar system. We see the planets – Mars, Neptune – we’ve caught those, observed those. We find supernovae. We’ve observed star clusters. We observed the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters in the Pleiades that people are probably familiar with. We’ve learned about those stars from the K2 mission. So, I mean, the list just goes on and on.

Host: So talk a little bit about what’s next in that world of exoplanets. You had already mentioned WFIRST. Obviously we have the James Webb telescope that’s going up. That’s like an infrared telescope. But you have TESS.

Natalie Batalha:So Kepler was a census.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:Well, maybe census is not the right word. Census implies you’re doing an exact counting. We’re doing more of a poll. Taking a poll of stars in the galaxy to find out what kinds of planets they harbor. Right? So the idea was to find out how far you’d have to look before finding an Earth-size planet that’s potentially habitable.

The next thing to do is to find all of the planets that are closest to the Earth. So we’re moving into an era of finding these nearby planets, and that’s going to be done with the TESS spacecraft.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:So there is another mission called TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite that is also employing the transit method to find planets.

Host: And that was very good. Most people have to look up on their phone to look at their notes.

Natalie Batalha:Look up the acronym.

Host: That was just right off the top of your head. You got that.

Natalie Batalha:Most of these acronyms are pretty obvious. Right? The T’s got to be transiting.

Host: It’s got to be.

Natalie Batalha:The E’s got to be exoplanet. But you know space is in there someplace.

Host: It has to be. Maybe a system. It’s government acronyms.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. Don’t blame me if I got an S wrong. I think it’s right.

Host: So transit method.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. So it’s employing the transit method. It’s doing what Kepler did. It’s doing it with four telescopes at once, surveying one slice of the galaxy from the equator to the pole.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:It observes that for – I think it’s something like on the order of a month, let’s say. And then it clocks over and does another strip, another longitude strip, and then clocks over and does another.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:And in this step-and-stare way, it covers the entire northern hemisphere of sky. And then the second year it flips and does the southern hemisphere.

Host: Oh, wow. Okay.

Natalie Batalha:So it’s looking for transiting planets, but across the whole sky. And what that means is that you will have more of the nearby stars that you can survey, whereas Kepler just looked at this one little handprint in the sky. It didn’t catch a lot of the nearest stars. Now, by surveying the whole sky, we should be able to find a lot of these edge-on systems that are close by.

And the reason that we care about them is because we can use the James Webb Space Telescope to do something called transmission spectroscopy –

Host: Ooh, sounds fancy.

Natalie Batalha:– which sounds really complicated, but it’s not. Basically the idea is that you’re going to probe the composition and structure of the planet’s atmosphere. And the way that you’re going to do this is you’re going to collect light from the star in your telescope – in the James Webb Space Telescope, you’re going to collect light. But you’re going to do so when the planet is transiting the disk of the star.

So what that means is some of the light from the star is going to filter through that thin layer of atmosphere –

Host: Is that how? Yeah.

Natalie Batalha: — that’s hugging the planet. And in doing so, the atmosphere is going to leave a chemical fingerprint on the light.

Host: Okay.

Natalie Batalha:So you catch the light, spread it out into a spectrum, and you can find the atmospheric diagnostics. You can find those chemical fingerprints in the light and learn something about the atmosphere.

Host: This is like a flashback, like a physical science class in college, where they were lighting things on fire, and you look through a certain —

Natalie Batalha:Oh, yeah.

Host: – and it had different colors.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw a few.

Host: And the colors, you can – okay, this is oxygen or this is nitrogen. You can find that composition.

Natalie Batalha:Exactly.

Host: It’s the same idea.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah. When you spread the light out into a spectrum, you see it has very specific patterns. It’s not just a rainbow. Imposed upon that rainbow of light that comes from the star will be places where you have less brightness, because the atmosphere has eaten away some of the light at that particular color. And which colors get eaten away depends on what elements are in the atmosphere and what their temperature is and pressure and all of those kinds of things. So we will learn about the composition, the pressure, the temperature of an atmosphere, the scale height or how thick it is. These are things that we’re hoping to learn. And also just what the diversity of atmospheres are. So we hope to do that with the James Webb Space Telescope, and potentially even for a planet as small as Earth. That’s what we’re hoping.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:It’s going to be a stretch for that telescope. But it’s possible if we get really lucky. If we find a system, even like TRAPPIST-1, that system is probably just close enough that if the atmosphere is thick enough, we should be able to find features with the James Webb Space Telescope for those planets. So that’s what we’re hoping.

Host: And so how does that map out for you? You’ve been working on Kepler for so long. Then does it transition into other missions, other projects, other things? How does that world – how does that work out?

Natalie Batalha:Good question.

Host: Yeah, you’re like, “Who am I?”

Natalie Batalha:Now I’m really focused on Kepler. We’re finishing up and delivering our very final catalog. So we’ve done our very final last data processing and searched that data for planets and combed through it and classified things as false positives or planet candidates, et cetera. And we’re just now poised to release our final catalog, including all of the different bias measurements that you have to do in order to transform the discoveries into an estimate of what the intrinsic population of planets is out in the galaxy.

Host: Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:So that requires some bias measurements. You have to quantify. And we’re really hard at work doing that. We have to be done with this by the end of September of this year. That’s when we’ll pack up and go home, or stop analyzing the prime mission data.

Host: But even as you said, it’s like as that data comes in, there’s still going to be papers and stuff found by sifting through all this information for years to come.

Natalie Batalha:Well, yeah. I mean, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re actually delivering data products to the scientific community with the hope that we will catalyze new science over the next decade. So our task at hand is not to do the science ourselves necessarily, although we are doing that as well.

Host: Of course.

Natalie Batalha:But the task, my priority is to catalyze science, to deliver products that are valuable to the community that they can work on in the future to make these new discoveries.

Host: So I would be remiss if I didn’t embarrass you a little bit. So recently a well-known magazine, the Time “100 Most Influential People.”

Natalie Batalha:Oh, my goodness. Yes.

Host: Congratulations.

Natalie Batalha:Thank you. Thank you very much.

Host: I always think not only is that insanely cool. Like obviously for you, but obviously for NASA and for the field –

Natalie Batalha:Yes. Thank you for saying that. Yes.

Host: — and even for Ames. It’s like for everything. It’s just so insanely amazing.

Natalie Batalha:For exoplanet science, yes, thank you.

Host: Yes.

Natalie Batalha:I’m going to really try hard to own this. Okay? Which is not my character.

Host: But it’s also – like tell us, what goes through your head? Did you get like a text message, an email? Did you see it coming? Were you suspicious?

Natalie Batalha:It was an email. And it was such a short matter-of-fact email that my family and colleagues said, “Wait, is this like a joke?”

Host: Like, are they messing with you?

Natalie Batalha:I’m like, “Thanks a lot, guys.” No, we did have to kind of do a sanity check. We checked the host of the computer that the email came from to make sure that it made sense.

Host: We’ll check that IP address.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, right. It was a very nondescript email. I mean, it was wonderful. It was a surprise, of course. A little uncomfortable. I do feel embarrassed about it, simply because the science, the scientific process, or the projects, I should say, that people are trying to do in modern times, are every year more and more complex.

Host: Exactly.

Natalie Batalha:And require hundreds of experts to make them come to fruition. Right?

Host: Absolutely.

Natalie Batalha:Everything from the detection of gravity waves to the Higgs boson to Earth-size exoplanets, right, these things do not happen in a vacuum, like Einstein working –

Host: Yes.

Natalie Batalha:– decades ago, a century ago. So it does feel a little uncomfortable.

Host: Discombobulating.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t like it. The recognition really belongs to the entire Kepler team, so let’s just get that out of the way.

Host: It’s a huge kudos for the team and for the science, for everything.

Natalie Batalha:Yeah, exactly. That’s the way I like to think about it.

Host: It’s awesome. Yeah.

Natalie Batalha:That said, I think it’s fantastic that a spotlight, a tiny spotlight has been shined on exoplanet research.

Host: Definitely.

Natalie Batalha:Because the discoveries that are being made are fabulous. They’re fantastic. And I would love for more people to learn about them and take this journey with us and understand the discoveries that are being made and how cool they are and start to imagine all of these worlds as actual destinations. That’s what I’m hoping happens, that it will raise a certain curiosity and inspire people to go learn more.

Host: And so talk a little bit about that. You went to a big gala in New York.

Natalie Batalha:Yes. That was really fun. It was a huge treat. It felt a little self-indulgent. But it was a great treat. A little overwhelming. There were lots of really interesting people there. You know, the list is actually a weird mix of names. Right? You’ve got people that do all kinds of different things. Some of them are making positive influences. Some of them are making not-so-positive influences. So it’s a mixed bag.

Host: That’s very diplomatic, I guess.

Natalie Batalha:So there’s that. But I was really excited just to get to know the people and what they’re doing. It was very surreal. It was very overwhelming. You know that there’s a lot of well-known people there, but it’s so out of context that you don’t recognize them. And so –

Host: I see you on a TV. You look familiar, but when you see somebody in person, it’s –

Natalie Batalha:– it’s completely different. So a lot of the processing has gone on after the fact, as I’ve seen the pictures and recalled the people and the space and learned about them. I didn’t have a lot of time. They didn’t give us a lot of time to learn about who was going to be there. They told us that we were on the list, but they didn’t tell us who else was on the list. The whole list was under embargo. So I knew I was on it, but I didn’t even know that there were two other exoplanet scientists on the list —

Host: Yes, exactly.

Natalie Batalha:— until right before. So, yeah.

Host: Oh, it’s fascinating. So for folks who are listening who have questions for Natalie, you want to get more in the weeds on any kind of exoplanet stuff, we’re always @NASAAmes. But I also have to give a shout out to @NASAKepler, another Twitter account. We use the #NASASiliconValley. You’ll find anything and all that you could think of for Kepler for exoplanets just over at

But, Natalie, this is so wonderful to talk and hear your stories. Thanks for coming.

Natalie Batalha:Thank you so much for having me.