Lisa Kaltenegger, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Astronomy, Director of the Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University

SCOL Project: Spectral Fingerprints of Habitable Planets

A decade of exoplanet search has led to surprising discoveries, from giant planets close to their star, to planets orbiting two stars, all the way to the first extremely hot, rocky worlds with potentially permanent lava on their surfaces due to the star’s proximity. Observation techniques have now reached the sensitivity to explore the chemical composition of the atmospheres as well as physical structure of some detected planets and find planets of less than 10 Earth masses (so called Super-Earths), among them some that may potentially be habitable.

The first two confirmed transiting planets and several non-transiting planets orbit in the Habitable Zone of their host star. Observing mass and radius alone can not break the degeneracy of a planet’s nature due to the effect of an extended atmosphere that can also block the stellar light and increase the observed planetary radius significantly. Even if a unique solution would exist, planets with similar density, like Earth and Venus, present very different planetary environments in terms of habitable conditions. Therefore the question refocuses on atmospheric features to characterize a planetary environment. Lisa’s work focuses on observational features of rocky planets in the HZ of their stars that can be used to examine if our concept of habitability is correct and how we can identify the first habitable new worlds in the sky.

Lisa Kaltenegger is Associate Professor at Cornell University and Director of the Institute for Pale Blue Dots. Her research focuses on rocky planets and super-Earths atmospheres in the habitable zone, as well as the spectral fingerprint of exoplanets that can be detected with the next generation of telescopes. Lisa Kaltenegger was named one of America’s Young Innovators 2007 by Smithsonian Magazine, was selected as one of the European Commission’s Role Models for Women in Science and Research and recently received the Heinz Meier Leibnitz Prize for Physics of Germany in 2012 among several other awards.

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