Meet Dr. Eric Ford, the Penn State Professor Who Helped NASA Discover a New Planet
At Penn State, we’re proud of the esteemed educators who represent our university.
We have professors who speak at TED conferences halfway across the world, contribute to Nobel-Prize winning teams, help invent the birth control pill, and even create 60’s comedy sci-fi musicals in their spare time.
Dr. Eric Ford, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is adding his name to the list.
Along with a team of astronomers and scientists at NASA, Ford helped discover the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone,” the distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.
The discovery of this planet, named Kepler-186f after NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, confirms for the first time that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.
While little remains known about the planet, located 500 million light years away, Ford and the team suspects it has a rocky surface with a reasonable atmosphere, meaning it could potentially have liquid water. Continents, oceans, coastlines — maybe even life — could populate the surface.
“If it was easy to measure its atmosphere, we would have done it and put it in the paper,” said Ford, co-author of the discovery team’s research paper, which was published by the journal Science on April 17. “We’ve done what we responsibly could with a reasonable effort and the technology we now have.”
Although it will make many years to know for sure if Earth-like life is inhabiting the planet, the discovery represents a significant step toward finding planets outside of our own that could support living inhabitants.
“It’ll be a long time before we’re able to answer the really cool question about this planet, but it sort of represents a milestone on the journey toward finding stars that are easier to study,” said Ford.
After graduating from MIT in 1999 with degrees in physics and mathematics, Ford studied astronomy and astrophysics at Princeton, where he received a Ph.D. in Astrophysical Sciences. So when NASA came knocking while he was teaching at the University of Florida in 2008 (he would later join the Penn State faculty in 2013), he couldn’t resist.
“NASA launched Keplar spacecraft in 2009, but the beginnings of that idea started in the 1970s, and it took a long time to develop the technology to be able to find Earth-size planets around other stars,” said Ford.
Just as the team was getting ready to launch, astronomers began to discover planets using new methods, such as ground-based telescopes. Luckily for Ford, ground-based astronomy was something he had been studying for years.
“What NASA realized is that this field has moved so much, it would be good to bring some new people into the mission who have some expertise in aspects that weren’t part of science when we developed this idea,” he said. “So in 2008, I and maybe about 10 other people joined the mission officially as participating scientists to contribute various aspects to the project, and ever since then we’ve been involved in telecoms constantly trying to coordinate various efforts of analysis, or observations, or logistics of things.”
Working with NASA, Ford found, was an entirely different beast. As the main provider of grant funding for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, NASA gave Ford the opportunity to tackle something extraordinary.
“Often times, say a grant for planet formation, if I want to talk to somebody, I can,” said Ford. “But for the most part, it’s maybe me and two graduate students working on a project. It’s very much a ‘small science’ project type thing.”
“Once you get into a $600 million, it’s ‘big science’.”
Calling a space mission a “humongously complicated effort,” Ford says there are probably hundreds of engineers who contributed to the mission, as well as a group of a few dozen scientists who are actively involved. There’s even a team at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. that monitors the spacecraft at all times.
“Inevitably, when you have dozens of people, you can’t get them all on the phone at once, and sometimes people just don’t communicate clearly, and there’s confusion, so it can be frustrating,” said Ford. “But it can also kind of be fun when at one time, you have collaborated six of the world’s largest telescopes at the same time. It’s amazing to be able to collaborate with so many people who share the same vision and set of goals.”
Part of that excitement comes from discovery. Since Ford and others have the freedom to do their own work on deadline and talk with the team at a later date, he’s found himself being one of the first people on Earth to find something that nobody else has ever seen before.
“There are times when you’re like ‘I’m the only person in the world who knows about this’,” said Ford, whispering for dramatic effect. “But of course in a week when you have a telecom and talk about it. And of course, everybody is like ‘Oh, have you thought about the effect of general relativity!’, so you sigh, and you go back and do more work.”
One of the challenges Ford says he faces as an educator is explaining the richness and complexity of a diverse topic like astronomy or astrophysics, yet also training students efficiently to help them understand everything they’ve learned.
Science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and even Bill Nye can be valuable in educating the general public, especially if they have a background as real, full-time scientists and researchers, he says. Astronomy especially seems to find a captive audience, because humans have been fascinated with stars, planets, and life in other galaxies since the first recordings of history.
“Astronomy is really effective at reaching the public,” said Ford. “Not that other areas of science aren’t important, but sometimes if I want to study for example the mesoscale structure of carbon nanotubes and its interaction with e-coli, you have to be an expert to appreciate it. While we have details that can’t be explained quickly in a soundbyte, the overall story can be simplified to something that a newspaper article can explain.”
At the end of the day, Ford is just happy to see that his particular field of astronomy, extrasolar planetary systems, is finally gaining some recognition among his peers.
“When I first started, you would go to the annual meeting of astronomers, and you would have thousands of astronomers, and there’d be three posters about planets,” said Ford. “It was almost not taken seriously, because what do we know about other planets and other stars? Nothing. So it was very much in it’s infancy.”
“At the last major meeting, it was something like a third of the talks and posters were about planets. So it’s really grown in importance among the astronomy field.”