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The space pioneer who is on the hunt for life-supporting planets

Carolyn Lagattuta
UC Santa Cruz
Natalie Batalha is a professor of astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, and one of the first scientists in line to use the James Webb Space Telescope in her search for other planets in our galaxy.

If there is life elsewhere in the universe, Natalie Batalha could be the one to lead us to it. An astrophysicist at UC Santa Cruz, Natalie uses powerful space telescopes to peer into the cosmos and detect planets outside of our solar system. Some of these so-called exoplanets could have just the right ingredients to support life.

Batalha was also involved in the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a powerful new tool in her cosmic hunt for life-sustaining planets. And she's the co-organizer of the Universe in Verse, a public event at UC Santa Cruz on April 16th that marries science and poetry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jerimiah Oetting (JO): First, what do you find most fascinating about your search for planets outside of our solar system?

Natalie Batalha (NB): It took 13.7 billion years to give rise to the complexity that manifests itself as you and I and these beautiful redwood trees. The rise of complexity is quite a miraculous thing in the universe, and where complexity arises is naturally on the surfaces of exoplanets, which is actually astounding in and of itself. Because planets are the debris, the detritus, the leftover afterthought of star formation. You know? They're the crumbs on the floor that mom didn't sweep under the rug. And yet that's where the complexity arises.

JO: The James Webb telescope successfully launched on December 21st of last year. How did that feel and how's it felt to witness its slow deployment over the last few months?

NB: The James Webb Space Telescope is so big that you cannot fit it into a rocket fairing as one monolithic mirror. You have to make segmented mirrors, and they do that using hexagonal shapes, and it's folded up origami style into the fairing of the rocket. So that not only had to be unfolded after it launched, but each of those mirrors had to be meticulously aligned so that they all focus the light to the same point. And that's now been completed. We have beautifully sharp images coming from the James Webb Space Telescope, so that's really tremendously exciting, but it also means we need to get to work! So there are two programs out of 13 that are to observe exoplanets, and they're both actually being led out of UC Santa Cruz.

JO: How will James Webb help with your search for exoplanets?

NB: The James Webb Space Telescope can be thought of as the successor to Hubble. It's a larger telescope, a bigger light bucket, which allows us to see farther or see fainter into the universe, so we'll be able to push boundaries and learn more than we could with Hubble.

And so, for example, if a planet eclipses its star, passes directly between our telescope and the disk of the star, some of the starlight is going to filter through the edge through the atmosphere on its way to our telescope. We catch that light, spread it out into a rainbow in order to examine the energy at every single color. And when we do that, we see the chemical fingerprints of the molecules that were in that atmosphere.

I look up at the sky and I do feel that existential sense of cosmic loneliness. I would look at the sky very differently if I knew that there was life out there.
Natalie Batalha

That allows us to know if there are greenhouse gases or if the planet is hydrogen rich or could even potentially have surface liquid water. Those are the kinds of things that we want to learn about these planets.

JO: So you're organizing this event on April 16th at the UCSC Quarry Amphitheater called the Universe in Verse. Tell us more about the event.

NB: Sure. OK, Universe in Verse. So verse as in poetry. By bringing science and poetry together, it is yet another vehicle for communicating the wonder of science, the beauty of our universe. I have the privilege of thinking about that every day, and I try my best to communicate that sense of awe and wonder to the public. But as Carl Sagan said, "they should have sent a poet."
I'm not a poet! I mean, the people that are coming to share their stories and read poems are some of my favorite people on the planet right now. After the event, weather cooperating, we will have these telescopes, so we hope to cap off the evening with some wonderful observations of the cosmos that should inspire people on their way back home.

Natalie Batalha is a professor of astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. UC Santa Cruz is one of KAZU’s many supporters.