Dr. Drake Deming, former Chief of Goddard Space Flight Center’s Planetary Systems Laboratory, currently serves as Senior Scientist with NASA’s Solar System Exploration Division where he specializes in detecting and characterizing hot Jupiter extrasolar planets. Dr. Deming was named recipient of the 2007 John C. Lindsay Memorial Award, Goddard’s highest honor for outstanding contributions in space science, for his work in developing a way to detect light from extrasolar planets and use it to measure their temperatures.
NASA Tech Briefs: What is the Solar System Exploration Division’s primary mission within NASA and what types of projects does it typically handle?
Drake Deming: Our primary mission is to study planetary science in the context of NASA’s space mission program. In this case planetary science also includes planets orbiting other stars.
NTB: You began your career in education teaching astronomy at the University of Maryland. What lured you away from academia to pursue a career with NASA?
Deming: Research, and the opportunity to do cutting-edge space-based research.
NTB: Had you always planned to move in that direction, or was it after you had started your career that NASA entered the picture?
Deming: I had always planned to move into research.
NTB: Much of your research over the years has focused on trying to detect and characterize so-called “hot Jupiter” extrasolar planets. What are “hot Jupiter planets, and what can we learn from them?
Deming: Hot Jupiters are giant planets, like Jupiter in our own solar system, but they’re in much closer to their stars. Not only are they much closer than Jupiter in our solar system is, but they’re much closer even than our own Earth. What we can learn from them is quite a bit, because they’re in so close to the star they’re subject to strong irradiation from the star, so the dynamics of their atmosphere is very lively, the circulations are very strong, so we can learn about the physics of their atmospheres. Also, they are subject to tremendous forces from the star; they’re subject to tidal forces, which may play a role in inflating their sizes. So, we can learn about their internal structure, and we can learn a lot about planets from studying hot Jupiters because they’re an extreme case.
NTB: Why are extrasolar planets so hard to detect?
Deming: They’re so hard to detect because, so far, we cannot spatially resolve them from their parent stars, so we have to study them in the combined light of the planet and the star. That means it’s a small signal riding on top of a large noise source – in this case, the star.
NTB: You are the principal investigator on a program called EPOCh, which stands for Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization. Tell us about that program and what you hop to accomplish with it.
Deming: Well, we have just concluded our observing with EPOCh. We have over 170,000 images of planet-hosting stars, and when we get these images we don’t resolve the planet from the star. We use the images to do precise photometry. These are bright stars that have planets that transit in front of them, and the geometry of the transit tells us quite a bit about the planet. It tells us the radius. We can examine the data to see whether it has rings or moons. We can look for other, smaller planets in the system that may transit. And in favorable cases our sensitivity extends down to planets the size of the Earth, so we’re searching for smaller worlds in these systems.