News | October 25, 2018
Meet the Kepler mission team
Jose Vinicius de Miranda Cardoso
Hometown: Campina Grande, Brazil
"Back in Brazil, when I first heard about NASA’s Kepler Mission, the first thing that came into my mind was, ‘These people built and operate a space telescope with the goal to find Earth-like planets dozens or hundreds of light years away. They themselves are out of this world!’ Working for Kepler was an absolutely amazing experience. The mission and its quest for habitable worlds are so fascinating that every day at work felt like there was going to be a pink box of donuts waiting for you. And that was what actually happened. The feeling and privilege of being surrounded by the outstanding NASA teams of scientists, managers and engineers simply cannot be put into words. Go Kepler!”
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I was in graduate school studying star formation in 1995 when 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet around a Sun-like star, was found. I remember being very skeptical of this Jupiter-size planet orbiting its star every four days. Little did I know then that I would spend much of my career studying exoplanets and helping the Kepler mission find even more bizarre and amazing planets. In 1998, I started working with Kepler’s principal investigator, Bill Borucki, on the Vulcan project. Vulcan was a small, 10 centimeter-diameter telescope designed to look for planets like 51 Peg b that happen to pass in front of – or transit— their star as seen from Earth. At the time this approach was not widely accepted in the astronomy community and Vulcan was a proof-of-concept for the much more ambitious Kepler mission. I was part of a small team (three of us!) working on incorporating our Vulcan experience into the design of Kepler’s data processing pipeline to help convince NASA that Kepler would work. After NASA agreed, our team grew significantly as we began the detailed work of designing and building a spacecraft and data analysis pipeline that could monitor over 100,000 stars searching for the tiny transit signals of Earth-size planets. My role shifted to uncovering the quirks of the instrument and understanding how they would affect our search for planets. As instrument scientist I helped oversee the testing and characterization of the photometer and helped develop the models and algorithms needed to calibrate Kepler’s science data and distinguish between transit signals from exoplanets and the often much larger artifacts from the instrument. While I enjoy burying my head in the minute details of the data, perhaps the most satisfying part of my time with Kepler is when I step back and see how Kepler’s results have fundamentally changed not just the field of astronomy, but humanity’s understanding of our place in the universe. We now know that there are not just a handful of oddball exoplanets out there, but that there are more planets than stars, including planetary systems with many that are potentially habitable. I am proud to be a part of the Kepler team.
Co-investigator for Data Analysis
Hometown: Merritt Island, Florida
“Nothing compares to when you get the spacecraft up there and it opens its eyes and sees for the very first time. I was actually going to work (in May 2009), en route, when I got word the data was ready. I got to work at 6 a.m., ready to sit down with my coffee, looking at the data. I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it, I was so anxious. I actually washed the coffee pot – 12 people (in the office), but the coffee pot rarely got washed. I took an extra 10 minutes to calm my nerves, to give it an extra scrub. Then I started pulling data across, looking at light curves. The brightness variations of stars were phenomenal – everything we imagined they could be. It was very easy right off the bat to see eclipsing binaries, lots of variable stars and transiting exoplanets. A colleague turned to me. He had this encyclopedia of variable stars. He said, ‘Jon, I don’t see anything like that in the encyclopedia.’ That was what Kepler was like. It showed us stars in a whole new light, in ways we’d never seen or appreciated before. Right out of the box, we knew Kepler would be a success.”
Steve B. Howell
Home town: Oakdale, Pennsylvania
“Kepler and K2 have changed the course of human thought. They have provided an inflection point not only in science but also in the very nature of our existence. These missions have provided paradigm-changing results in stellar astrophysics, new views of cosmology, and their greatest finding, the discovery of a multitude of exoplanets including potentially habitable worlds scattered throughout the galaxy. Bringing together not just scientists but all people, these two missions, assembled here on planet Earth, give us pause to reflect upon ourselves and upon our existence in the Universe. As in the Copernican Revolution, when we learned we were no longer the center of the universe, we now know that we are unlikely to be alone, unlikely to be the only life-bearing rock orbiting the distant stars. Yet for now, Earth is our only home. All of us are important and all our lives are precious. Here there is no room for hate, fear, and bigotry. Perhaps now we can finally dispense with the futile and ignorant belief in war as a political tool and choose instead to go forward together and become emissaries to all life everywhere.”
Jeffrey E. Van Cleve
Home town: Newark, New Jersey
Data Processing Lead
Hometown: Sonoma, California
“I started in 2007 as a student worker for Dr. Natalie Batalha, while working on my (master’s degree) in physics at (San Jose State University), doing light-curve modeling of eclipsing binary stars on Vulcan (photometer) data. In 2009, I was hired on full-time in the Science Operations Center (SOC) as an operations engineer. Work as an operations engineer consists of processing the science data through its lifecycle. The process began with running pipelines to help the science office choose which stars to observe during a (data collection period). Then we'd export those tables and send them off to be uplinked to the spacecraft for science observations. After three months of collecting science data on the spacecraft, that data set would be delivered to the SOC for data accounting, (importing the data) into the computing cluster, processing, and export. The processing and export results get pushed to the science team, and then delivered to the MAST (Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes) and the NExScI (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute) Exoplanet Archive for the science community. Getting to use the NAS supercomputer to process the big multi-quarter data sets was pretty exciting! It was always fun to go to team meetings to hear the science results before everybody else: when we found the planet going around two stars, or finding the heartbeat stars (binary stars that seem to pulse more strongly as they approach each other). It is hard to choose a favorite science discovery, but I would say that Kepler 186f had a big impact on the team. Looking back, I think this has been a challenging job, but sometimes there would be fun times – like back earlier on, we used to go gather back in a conference room to watch episodes of original Star Trek. I remember watching ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ and eating snacks and thinking this was an awesome place to work.”
Hometown: San Rafael, California
Ann Marie Cody
Hometown: Sunnyvale, California
“Back in 2009 I was in graduate school getting ready to write my thesis. I was working on some photometry projects, monitoring the whims and outbursts of young stars (where ‘young’ in astronomy means a few million years old). I had used the Canadian space telescope MOST and was soon to use the French space telescope CoRoT. But what was this Kepler telescope that had just launched? Could I use it to observe young stars? It turned out that the answer, at least initially, was no. Kepler was dedicated to a particular patch of sky, and there were no young stars there. I instead became heavily involved with the analysis of young star data from CoRoT. But in late 2012, a computer failure brought the telescope to its knees. Some nine months later, a major problem (loss of a reaction wheel) would strike Kepler too. But there was a ray of hope: unlike the CoRoT mission, which was unsalvageable, Kepler was still able to carry out science. The telescope had simply lost its ability to point stably. Kepler’s engineering teams came up with a radical idea: re-orient the spacecraft such (that) it was in rough equilibrium thanks to the Sun’s light impinging on its solar panels. Kepler would no longer be able to stare at the same patch of space that it had spent four years on, but it could look to entirely new areas. And in those new areas...were young stars! In early 2014, Kepler was reborn as the K2 Mission. I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship position at the NASA Ames Research Center headquarters to Kepler. Some months later I moved to the Bay Area of California to work with this fabled telescope. It’s now been nearly four years, and it’s one of the best moves I ever made. I’ve had the privilege to get the first look at incredibly high quality and intriguing data on young stars, and with that data we’ve made numerous new discoveries. We have found orbiting blobs of dust around them -- potentially related to the initial seeds of exoplanets. We’ve observed gas funneling onto the young stars in huge bursts. And we’ve identified the youngest known planets orbiting these objects.”
Hometown: Cambridge, United Kingdom
“Kepler has been such a paradigm shift for people like me. I remember using it for my pre-master’s project. It’s such a constant, such an assumed thing. I’m in a really privileged position to be in the first generation of astronomers able to use it as readily – from the beginning of my career it’s been available. I’m incredibly grateful for it. We use it so much every day; so much relies on it. It’s seamlessly part of the astronomical landscape. I cannot imagine what astronomy was like 20 years ago without Kepler.”
Lead Scientific Programmer
Home town: San Mateo, California
Safety and Mission Assurance
Home town: Sunnyvale, California
Home town: Dublin, Ireland
When K2 was getting started, I had to figure out where to point the spacecraft for the first campaign. I had a lot of fun working with spacecraft orbits and attitudes with loads of vectors and cross products. As Bart Simpson would say, "I'd finally found a practical use for geometry!" To help me figure out all the orientations I made a little Lego model of the spacecraft -- I still have it on my desk -- and I'd spend half an hour lining it up just right on my desk, with coffee cups strategically placed around the office to represent the Sun, the Earth, and any other solar system planets I had to worry about. Once I had the Lego lined up so all the vectors were pointing in the right place I’d go check that my code was giving me the right answers.
Of course, everytime I did this someone would walk into the office, pick up the Lego, turn it around in their hands a few times and ask: "What are you doing with this?" At the end of it all, me and my little Lego model got to point a space telescope millions of light years away in space.
My 6-year-old self would have been seriously impressed.
Susan E. Mullally
Home town: Waukesha, Wisconsin
Kepler will always be the backdrop against the memories I have of starting my family. While I worked on the Kepler team to figure out what the data meant, I was also figuring out how to be a wife and mother. My husband and I both started at Kepler the summer after we got married. My son was born the following year. I gave a presentation on heartbeat stars at the Kepler science conference two weeks later, proudly showing a picture of the newest member of the Kepler team. At the Christmas party, the manager of the Kepler science office, who adores babies, carried my newborn baby boy around in one hand and a plate of food in the other. My daughter arrived right after we lost the second reaction wheel and Kepler became K2. I came back from maternity leave and was suddenly working on a new mission. As my kids grew, they loved visiting my work. They would run through the hallways, draw on the white boards, and come home with mission stickers co-workers found in their offices.
The great thing about Kepler is that it is the first time we were able to look at stars for such a long time at such high precision. As a result, we had a few puzzles to figure out in the data, signals we had never seen before. The one I remember were these periodic events that not only decreased in flux (a drop in starlight) like a transit, but then immediately got brighter. Some looked a bit like the signal you get from an echocardiogram, so they got the nickname “heartbeat” stars. After a lot of long hours of reading papers on related topics, I found a theoretical paper from 20 years earlier that predicted these exact brightness variations from two stars tugging on each other as they danced around each other in an eccentric orbit. Times like these when you go from bewilderment to understanding is the reason you go into astronomy. It was a lot of fun finding these unusual systems in the Kepler data that were believed to be possible, but were difficult to find.
Lead Operations Engineer
Home town: Seattle, Washington
My journey with Kepler started when I was a master’s student in the physics department at San Jose State University. I was taking astrophysics from Dr. Natalie Batalha, who was a co-investigator on Kepler at that time. I started as an intern under Dr. Batalha, studying the Kepler Input Catalog (KIC) to assess the accuracy of the stellar properties: mass and radii. One day in late 2008, Dr. Batalha came into my cubicle and said the Science Operations Center (SOC) needed a test engineer to work on release testing. She had already told them that I would be a great addition to the team and I soon joined the SOC in their preparations to release the pipeline software before launch. After a short stint writing up release test procedures, I jumped into SOC operations, becoming lead operator as the team grew. Working in Kepler SOC operations was a good balance of both excitement and tedium. I worked closely with the SOC pipeline developers to coordinate releases and data re-processing efforts, as well as work with the developer who would fix our latest bug. Even though Kepler was looking at the same patch of sky, near Cygnus, every monthly or quarterly data set had the potential to be just different enough to find a corner case in the code. I also enjoyed working with the Kepler Science Office and getting to know various personalities in each group. Working on the Kepler Mission was an adventure in both science and society.
Like Halley’s Comet, Kepler also brought together people from all walks of life, to talk together and wonder about the sky and about our place in the universe. The Kepler mission gathered an amazing group of engineers, developers, scientists, and professionals to work on the mission. The staff on Kepler were (and are) dedicated and enthusiastic about the mission -- about finding the first Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around a Sun-like star. They were (and are!) excited about the science, the software, the challenges, and the wonder that the stars bring down to our Earth.
Kepler brought together children and adults to talk about the stars, planets, and what makes life possible.
Home town: San Ramon, California
Home town: Vienna, Austria
My main research interest with Kepler data is asteroseismology, the study of oscillations, or vibrations, in stars. Similar to how musical instruments vibrate in different tones due to changes in size and composition, sound waves in stars can be used to understand their fundamental properties and interiors. Kepler data revolutionized the field of asteroseismology (arguably on a similar or even larger scale than exoplanets!), and allowed us to peer deeper into the interior of stars than ever before. Particularly exciting studies were those in which we were able to detect stellar oscillations and transiting planets for the same star, which allowed us to characterize both the star and planets using only Kepler data.
My most vivid memories working with the Kepler team were moments of discovery. I still remember the day when Tom Barclay came running down the hallway after spotting the transits of Kepler-186f (the first confirmed Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a star), or when Chris Burke came knocking on my door after discovering Kepler-444 (a system of 5 planets smaller than Earth, that asteroseismology revealed to be almost as old as our universe). Advancing our knowledge of our place in the universe in moments like these are the reason why many of us pursue astronomy as a career, and Kepler has allowed so many in the astronomy community to be part of incredibly exciting discoveries that felt like we are contributing a small part to making history.
Home town: Mukilteo, Washington
Home town: Feeding Hills, Massachusetts
Since then, Kepler has discovered thousands of exoplanet candidates. One of my favorite memories was the announcement of Kepler-16b: the first "Tatooine" world found in real life. It was the perfect synergy of science fiction and science fact. Here was a binary star system that had an extrasolar planet orbiting around both stars, not unlike the planet Luke grew up on in the movies! Not only did it show that planets can indeed form around circumbinary disks and survive, but it perfectly aligned with my favorite sci-fi franchise.
After obtaining my Ph.D. in astronomy, I now have the privilege of working at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) in Baltimore. We are the final resting
place for all the phenomenal data collected by Kepler and K2. My job entails making sure these data products are discoverable and available to the worldwide astronomical community for decades to come. In addition to my own research using Kepler and K2 data, I enjoy seeing what the rest of the community is able to do with the data products, even after the mission has formally ended. I know that I have a small, indirect role in every discovery made as one of the stewards of Kepler and K2 data products.
Co-investigator, Education and Public Outreach (EPO)
Home town: Berkeley, California
The concept of the mission was novel and bold, yet relatively easy to explain to the public. And the public was keenly interested in possibilities for discovery of exoplanets. It married the excitement of science fiction with the excitement of science! In our meetings, we learned all about essential issues – and sometimes excruciating details – and were thus better poised to produce enriching outreach products, including: classroom activities, school curricula, a planet art contest, computer simulations, table-top models (including LEGO and KNEX versions), a traveling museum exhibit, public presentations, planetarium shows, videos, StarDate radio programs, and handouts (lithographs, fact sheets, bookmarks).
The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California is extremely proud of its contribution of educational products and resources to the NASA Kepler Mission, which can be found on the Planetarium Activities website.
Operations Software Lead, MOC Flight Director
Home town: Boulder, Colorado
One of my most memorable software tasks was developing the software that we used to convert the raw data (as received by the DSN) into the correctly formatted data sets that the Science Operations Center (SOC) would need to be able to find planets. This was a non-trivial design that had to be constructed in a way that could perform data receipt, assembly, accounting, and delivery fast enough that we could determine any missing data and be capable of re-transmitting it if needed. It was the very first component of the science processing pipeline. I take pride in knowing that every single planet that Kepler ever found was in one of those bytes that my software was integral in processing. Working on the software taught me enough about the mission itself, that I later transitioned to working as LASP flight director, overseeing the day-to-day mission operations.
I have many fond memories of working night shifts with our student operators in the MOC, dimly illuminated by lava lamps. Working on the Kepler mission will always remain one of the brightest accomplishments of my professional career, and I will forever appreciate all the wonderful, talented people who worked on it with me.
Home town: Mountain View, California
I also enjoyed all the monthly management review meetings. The project team provides updates on new Kepler/K2 scientific publications (and referenced publications) as well as the ever-increasing number of publications as people continued to make sense of the data! The mission demonstrated its power and scope, eventually including citizen scientists to go through K2 data and find new exoplanets. Kepler had tremendous impact on the world of astronomy, on future generations and on our fundamental understanding of the universe.
Flight Director, LASP
Home town: Buena Vista, Colorado
One of the wonderful things about working on any spacecraft mission are the friends and acquaintances you make along the way. Kepler was no different. I will forever be grateful for the friendships Kepler created, and the opportunity to meet and work with such wonderfully smart and talented people. Being part of a mission that has literally re-written science books on the abundance of planets around stars has been a highlight of my career here at LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics). When I mention my work on Kepler to the general public I’m always amazed how many people recognize and know the Kepler/K2 mission, some following the mission for a long time. Kepler was truly an inspiring mission. Viva la Kepler!
Home town: Boulder, Colorado
Working directly with the Kepler spacecraft was an unprecedented experience, especially for a college student. I will never forget arriving for shifts at 2 a.m. or waiting for commands and telemetry, moving at the speed of light to travel millions of miles. I will never forget the experience of being a small part of such an impactful mission. Go Kepler!
Kamal Akm Uddin
Home town: Santa Clara, California
Working for Kepler has been a fascinating experience and I will always cherish my time working with NASA scientists and engineers on this humanitarian mission. I plan on bringing the same energy and enthusiasm to my next team.
Flight Controller, Lead Planner
Home town: Boulder, Colorado
Home town: Winthrop, Washington
Home town: Mountain View, California
Home town: Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania