Deming: That’s a big advantage for us because we’re not trying to image the planet. We’re only measuring the total photometric signal, so when the planet passes in front of the star we see a dip in intensity. That dip in intensity is, like, one percent. We’re doing very precise photometry, so that one-percent dip is actually the largest signal we see. We’re actually looking for much smaller dips due to smaller planets. Well, in order to measure that dip very precisely, we have to get a very precise photometric measurement, which means we need to collect a lot of light from the star. If we didn’t have the defocus, all of that light would be falling on one or two small pixels of the detector and they would immediately saturate. We’d have to constantly be reading them out and it just wouldn’t be practical. But by having a defocused image, we can spread the light over many pixels and use them to collect more light in a given readout. For each readout we collect many more photons from the stars.
NTB: Among your many accomplishments at NASA, you developed a way to detect light from extrasolar planets and use that light to measure their temperature. Can you explain how that technique works?
Deming: This was an observation with Spitzer. And it was also done concurrently by Professor David Charbonneau at Harvard. The Spitzer Observatory wasn’t really developed for that purpose. We just found that that it was particularly capable of that application, and what we did was we observed the systems that had transiting planets in the infrared where the planet is a significant source of radiation and we waited until the planet passed behind the star – and we could calculate when that would be – and then we saw a dip in the total radiation of the system. Since we knew the planet was passing behind the star at that time, the magnitude of that dip tells us the magnitude of the light from that planet. So, in that way we were able to measure the light from extrasolar planets. This has become a big topic of research for Spitzer. Spitzer has done this for many planets over many wavelength bands. It has been able to reconstruct, in kind of a crude way – but even crude measurements of planets orbiting other stars are very revealing and important – it’s been able to reconstruct the emission spectrum of some of these worlds orbiting other stars.
NTB: In 2007 you won the John C. Lindsay Memorial Award, Goddard’s highest honor for outstanding contributions in space science. What does it mean to you to have your name added to such a distinguished list of scientists?
Deming: Well, of course, I was very honored to receive this award. I was also very surprised because I had no indication, no hint, that this was coming.
NTB: Nobody tipped you off?
Deming: Nobody tipped me off. It was a complete surprise. I think the award speaks not to my own personal accomplishment but to the success of the NASA missions that enabled the measurements and all the people who designed and built the Spitzer Observatory. It wouldn’t have been possible to make those measurements without that facility.
To download this interview as a podcast, click here