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Cosmic Cliff: An Astrophysicist Searches for Exo-Earths, Black Holes—and Funding

Kepler space telescope astrophysicist Martin Still looks for Earth-like worlds and tracks the death of stars as he ponders the possible demise of his own program



NASA

Martin Still is an expert in endings. At 10,500 meters, onboard a Virgin Atlantic flight from San Francisco to London, he describes blasts that rip apart matter, explosions that destroy stellar systems and cataclysmic events that shake the cosmos. The NASA astrophysicist makes the prospect of astronomical obliteration sound exciting, although a conversation about any kind of destruction is not one most passengers prefer on a transatlantic trip.

For a man obsessed with entities long-since expired, it seems cruelly fitting that Still, whom I sat with on that flight two years ago, may soon see the death of his own NASA program: managing the Kepler space telescope, which orbits the sun with a mission to find exoplanets near other stars. Although Congress narrowly passed a bill avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff on January 1, the agreement only staves off massive decreases in spending until March when legislators must revisit the deal. NASA faces an 8.3 percent cut for the fiscal year and additional cuts over the next eight years, according to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

For now, Still works as a deputy director at NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Kepler Science Office in Mountainview, Calif. The organization was designed to detect potentially habitable planets in our Milky Way galaxy. So far it’s found 2,740 possible exoplanets that fit the bill, and recent discoveries have the science community buzzing about the odds of life elsewhere.

Yet the astrophysicist wasn’t always focused on discovering new life. Still spent his early career at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., watching stars die at the edge of the universe. Most stars greet death casually, gradually cooling and petering out of existence with little protest. But larger stars become unstable when their cores run out of fuel, exploding and expelling elemental bursts of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The storm of energy that follows is colossal.

"There's this incredible explosion, this incredible emission of gas and light," Still says. "It's one of the most violent acts in the universe. That's why it's so bright and observable across the stretch of time and space."

A native of the U.K., Still has seen red giants millions of miles across choke and collapse, waking briefly only to spew their outer layers before shrinking into black holes. NASA was once a shining star among federal research programs, but the agency’s annual budget is collapsing, too—at its lowest in four years at just $17.7 billion. Americans spend more on pet food each year. The reduction in funding slows progress on a host of missions like those that launched Still’s career more than 15 years ago.

Early on Still was tasked with keeping vigil, with recording the death throes of the astral beasts he studied. The scientist has bore witness to the final moments of more than 100 stars, although these fiery orbs have, in actuality, been dead for eons by the time Still lays eyes on them. The photons emitted by such explosions, traveling at the speed of light, or about 300,000 kilometers per second, can still take billions of years to reach Earth, covering distances so vast it exceeds human comprehension.

"There are things in the way, blocking the light coming from the black hole. You can see these notches and nicks in the (light) spectrum—each one of these nicks is actually a galaxy," he says. "Black holes are one window into what the universe was like 12 billion years ago."

All this talk about astrophysics momentarily distracts Still from the jetliner’s precarious position above the Atlantic, but it doesn’t take long for him to remember that he’s but a short fall from the ocean. Still buckles his seat belt. The flight attendant brings food sealed in compact, plastic containers. He eats and tries to sleep, but failing that, he tells the story of another journey.

In 2005 Still's cosmic death vigil took him and his family—Alison, and their two-year-old son, Oliver—to South Africa, where they lived for two years. Together they explored cities and took day trips into the wilderness. For one week out of every six, Still left his wife and toddler, taking a minibus to the Karoo Plateau, about 20 kilometers from the nearest village and nearly 500 kilometers from Cape Town. From a telescope on a mountain there, he watched stellar death rear its celestial head, aiming a 10-meter telescope at specific stars and galaxies. But stars and death were both confined to the night. During the day Still's environment was teeming with life; herds of wild springbok lived out mini dramas on the wide plain below the observatory.

"While Africa is full of incredible poverty, and crime and health issues, and social issues—despite all of that it's the most beautiful continent I've ever been to," he says. "It's just an incredibly diverse and confusing and intoxicating place to be. It is, by far, my favorite place on Earth."

Leave our own terra firma, and Still’s criteria for selecting favorites changes dramatically. Out of the thousands of exoplanet candidates that Kepler has discovered, he says his favorite is 22B. It's the first planet the project found in the "habitable zone," that orbital sweet spot between freezing too far away from a star and frying too close to it. It's also an Earth-size planet, which makes it easier for NASA garner public support for its budget. A gas-giant more like Jupiter may confound Americans already struggling to understand the benefits of space exploration. People tend to prefer the familiar.

Still, however, says he loves the unknown.

"I'm always, always, always reaching out for something better," he says. "The opportunities are just too great; the rewards for hard work and innovation are just enormous. I'm never content."

A life full of ambition within the space agency is both a blessing and a curse. It means he is quick to take on more responsibilities, holding two jobs at NASA. It also means that Still has lost the ability to sit still. Defying his last name, the astrophysicist laughs at the idea of relaxing.

After all, he has a lot of work to do—part of which involves filing grant applications and promoting Kepler’s mission. Not many people in the U.S. are well versed in math and science, which may be one of the reasons NASA usually receives less than 1 percent of the federal budget and why it stands to lose an estimated 19,400 jobs in March. Texas will likely cut the most, downsizing more than 5,600 spots. California, where Still lives, faces the second-largest layoff of about 4,586 positions, according to the AIA [pdf]. But the astrophysicist says he isn’t too worried about his own job. He believes there will always be a creative fix, another opportunity. Endings, he adds, aren’t always what they seem.

"The death of the star seeds the universe with life," Still says. "Stars are the ovens of the universe. All of those things that life requires to exist were born inside these stars, and the very violent events of their deaths have thrown these elements out into the universe so that you and I can be constructed."

When a star expires, he adds, that's only the beginning. The important part is what happens afterward—when the light rushes outward, when gases and elements are flung far and wide, when the ripple effects of the blast manifest themselves in myriad ways. What comes out of the explosion is the mystery.

It's true that black holes, as the final stage of a star’s death, offer us a glimpse into the cosmic past, but, right now, Still is only interested in the future of human discovery.

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