A few decades ago, we knew of no other planets beyond those in our solar system. Today, astronomers have confirmed over 700 planets circling other suns and believe billions more lay undiscovered. These new worlds have smashed conventional assumptions, revealing planets orbiting multiple stars, planets that don’t orbit stars at all, and at least one as airy as Styrofoam. The incredible boom in planetary diversity raises tantalizing prospects for an Earth analog that could harbor life—as we know it, and as we never imagined it.
This program is part of The Big Idea Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
Dan Harris was named co-anchor of ABC News’ weekend edition of Good Morning America in October 2010. Additionally, Harris is a New York-based correspondent for ABC News’ broadcasts and platforms, including World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, Nightline, ABC News Digital, and ABC News Radio.
Harris joined ABC News in March 2000 and has covered many of the biggest stories in recent years. He has reported from such diverse datelines as Ground Zero, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Korea, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. He has also spent many months in Iraq–both before and after the U.S.-led invasion. Domestically, Harris has led ABC News’ coverage of faith, with a particular focus on the evangelical movement. He scored one of the first interviews with former pastor Ted Haggard after his sex and drugs scandal. Harris also has a longstanding interest in indie rock and has started a weekly music show, Amplified, on ABC News NOW and ABCNEWS.com.
Harris has been honored several times for his journalistic contributions. He received a Murrow Award for his reporting on a young Iraqi man who received the necessary help to move to America, and in 2009 won an Emmy Award for his Nightline report “How to Buy a Child in Ten Hours.”
Natalie Batalha is a professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University and the Science Team Lead for NASA’s Kepler Mission, designed to survey our region of the Milky Way Galaxy for planets orbiting other sun-like stars. Batalha has been involved with the mission since the proposal stage and has worked on many different aspects of the science, from studying the stars themselves to understanding the planets they harbor. She led the analysis that yielded the discovery last year of Kepler-10b—the first rocky planet orbiting another sun-like star in our galaxy. Now in its fourth year of operation, Kepler is zeroing in on the answer to the question that drives the mission: are potentially habitable worlds abundant in our galaxy?
Batalha holds a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 2000, inspired by the growing number of exoplanet discoveries at the time, she came to NASA’s Ames Research Center to join a team that was building a robotic observatory to identify exoplanets using the “transit method”—by detecting the slight dimming effect as they pass across the faces of their host stars. An emerging field at the time, transit photometry is now the method the Kepler Mission uses to search for habitable, Earth-sized planets.
Matt Mountain has been the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute since September 1, 2005. He leads the 400-person organization responsible for the science operations and education and public outreach of the Hubble Space Telescope and of its planned successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. Mountain was previously the Director of the Gemini Observatory, which has telescopes in Hawaii, and Chile. He is also the James Webb Space Telescope’s Telescope Scientist, a member of its Science Working Group, a Professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford (UK).
Mountain’s principal research interests have included star formation in galaxies (including our own), advanced infrared instrumentation, and the capabilities of advanced telescopes. He has published more than 100 research papers, articles, and reports. He is a fellow of the American Astronomical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a member of the International Society for Optical Engineering. In 2003 Mountain was awarded the Gabriela Mistral Medal for excellence in education by the Chilean Ministry of Education. It was the first time this honor was awarded outside of Chile.
Sara Seager is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist. She has been a pioneer in the vast and unknown world of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Her ground-breaking research ranges from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds to development of novel space mission concepts. Now, dubbed an “astronomical Indiana Jones”, she on a quest after the field’s holy grail, the discovery of a true Earth twin. Seager earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University and is now the Class of 1941 Profesor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a MacArthur Fellow and was named in TIME magazine’s 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.