By Christian Mendoza
Is there life in outer space? How many planets exist outside of our solar system? Could Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit be made for real-life use?
Salmon editor Christian Mendoza discussed these questions and more with NASA’s Dr. Joshua E. Schlieder during an exclusive interview that was published on YouTube.
Dr. Schlieder is a NASA Research Astrophysicist who uses modern technologies to find planets outside of our solar system. These planets are called exoplanets. Through his research, Dr. Schlieder’s technologies have already detected hundreds of these potential far-away planets.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is one of the technologies Dr. Schlieder uses. TESS uses the transit method – the observation of planets passing in front of stars – to search for exoplanets. When a transit occurs, a planet passing in front of its star dims the star’s brightness, allowing astrophysicists to chart its existence.
“We need to see at least three of these dips in a periodic way to claim that there’s a planet candidate there and really go after it to confirm it,” Dr. Schlieder said.
Of the more than 4,300 exoplanets discovered, Dr. Schlieder predicts that dozens are habitable. However, he says it’s difficult to tell if a planet is truly fit for life, as many factors alter the exoplanets’ characteristics.
“How many might host life? Being a scientist and telling you the truth, I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that there are planets out there that the information we currently have in hand does not disqualify them,” he said.
Dr. Schlieder has considered how humans would react if he discovered life on a different planet.
“It would be sort of a time to really reflect on where we stand with our perspective as humans living on this planet in this galaxy in this universe. It would be a super interesting turning point in the way that we see ourselves,” he said.
Dr. Schlieder also works on a developing technology called the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, which is set to launch in 2025. The Roman Telescope will help solve mysteries surrounding dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. It will record images that are much larger and clearer than those from previous telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
“So picture the beautiful images that have come out of Hubble… but instead of being focused on just one object, you’re covering 100 times more sky,” he said.
According to Dr. Schlieder, this technology is far more advanced than our greatest space achievements, such as the moon landing.
“The [power of the] computing system in the lander that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin down to the surface of the moon… was less than what’s in a typical cell phone,” he said.
Though NASA’s technology may seem like something from a sci-fi movie, Dr. Schlieder says that their technology can even be found in the devices we use, such as phones and computers. He also presented ideas on how aerospace technology can benefit transportation on Earth.
“If getting on a rocket, going into orbit, going some fraction of the orbit around the earth, and re-entering at your destination was as routine as getting on a long-haul commercial flight, you could imagine how much more quickly we could travel around the planet,” he said.
Routine commercial space flight is a vision for many companies, especially SpaceX. Recently, SpaceX sent a commercial crew to the International Space Station, including NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
With private companies and other countries also interested in space exploration, Dr. Schlieder said the likelihood of collisions and accidents in space has increased, but NASA tracks all items in orbit. The topic of safe space exploration intensified after a Chinese rocket booster fell freely from space before crashing into the Arabian Peninsula last month.
Though this potential disaster frightened people across the world, Dr. Schlieder fears bigger things.
“Something that I think is unsettling about the universe is that it is just so big. We have this experience on this planet, and out there in the universe, there’s an enormous amount of stuff going on that we just don’t really know about or have access to,” he said.
Despite these fears, Dr. Schlieder finds inspiration in space discoveries.
“It’s also inspiring to me because we are these small living things on this planet… but we can look out there, develop technology, and use our own brains and work together toward answering these questions just from our small vantage point here,” Dr. Schlieder said.
He even gave his thoughts on Tony Stark’s nanotechnology in Avengers: Infinity War.
“Things like nanotechnology are real technology. There’s a lot of ideas about using nanotechnology for medical purposes,” he said. “The idea of having something as advanced as… an ultra-advanced suit… I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.