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Bellarmine Physics Department Wins NASA Grant to Join the Search for Earth-like Planets

Nov 03, 2009

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Nov. 3, 2009) – What is the possibility of finding another Earth? To date, scientists have discovered more than 400 extrasolar planets -- planets that orbit a star outside of our solar system. But finding a rocky, potentially habitable, Earth-like planet is a key goal that has so far eluded even the most advanced space-based telescopes. NASA, via the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium, has awarded Bellarmine University Physics Professor Akhtar Mahmood and his students a $25,000 grant to assist scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., on a new space-based mission that will search nearby stars for Earth-sized planets.

The project, known as the SIM Lite Astrometric Observatory (formerly the Space Interferometry Mission), is currently in development. Dr. Mahmood and two students, Ben Draper and Richard Jelsma, will join the JPL team working on the Spectral Calibration Development Unit, a platform for testing the very precise calibration necessary to produce instruments capable of identifying extrasolar planets.

"The partnership with JPL provides a tremendous opportunity for students participating in this project," said Dr. Mahmood. "They will be able to interact and work alongside some of the leading NASA scientists and play a scientific role in this future frontier SIM Lite space mission. This is simply fascinating. It almost sounds like a science fiction project!"

Draper and Jelsma will spend several weeks at JPL, analyzing the resolution and error of the test unit's interferometer measurements. An interferometer combines the light from multiple telescopes to produce the effect of one, much larger telescope. Students also will conduct some of the data analyses at Bellarmine University using a cluster computer.

In its selection of the Bellarmine team and decision to award the grant, the review panel wrote, "The committee felt that this was an impressive proposal and provided an incredible opportunity for students to work on the SIM Lite project."

JPL is developing the SIM Lite Astrometric Observatory under contract with NASA in collaboration with Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, Calif. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about SIM Lite, visit:

Planet Quest

Bellarmine University is an independent Catholic university offering more than 50 majors, as well as graduate degree programs and a doctor of physical therapy. and the Princeton Review rank Bellarmine among America’s best institutions for higher education, and U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks Bellarmine as a top tier university.

For more information about the Bellarmine University Physics Department, visit:

Bellarmine University Physics