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Ryan Terrien ’09, Carleton Alum, Receives NASA Astronomy Grant

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This March, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ryan Terrien ’09 received a grant from NASA to work on the NEID (pronounced “new-id”) spectrograph, a device used to detect exoplanets, planets outside of the solar system.

This summer, Terrien will travel to Penn State to do calibration and software simulation work for the spectrograph, which is scheduled to be installed on the NEID telescope in Arizona by the end of the year.

The NEID spectrograph is designed to work in tandem with the TESS satellite, which was launched into orbit just last Monday, April 16.

According to Terrien, the TESS satellite will be able to detect exoplanets, but not measure their masses.

The NEID spectrograph, however, will be able to do just that by detecting the amount of gravitational pull an exoplanet exerts on the star it orbits around using the Doppler shift, or the change in light spectrum as the star is pulled towards or away from us.

“The idea is to build a machine that can measure the spectrum of a star precisely enough that it can detect that really, really slight wobble due to an orbiting planet,” Terrien said. “The amount that we’re trying to detect there is a meter a second, or ten centimeters a second in velocity … it’s hard to make an instrument that’s capable of doing that.”

In his first year as a Carleton professor, Terrien was contracted to work on NEID in an unconventional way. According to Christopher Tassava, Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, typically grants last about three years and are obtained through a rigorous application process.

The NEID grant, however, is nearing the end of a ten year contract, and Terrien was also involved in building the spectrograph in 2015 at the end of his PhD.

“It’s a little different from the usual kinds of grants that I work on, where somebody comes, they want to start a new grant project, maybe it’s three years long, I help them apply. If they get the grant, they carry it out, and at the end of the three years, it’s done,” Tassava said.

“This exoplanet project that Professor Terrien is on is much longer in duration, the funding stream in more continuous over that time, and they plug people in and out depending on those skills.”

NASA is the largest singular funder of research projects at Carleton, and each year Carleton professors bring in about a million dollars of research grants, according to Tassava. In general, Tassava said, around two-thirds of this money goes to the sciences.

“There’s more money for science research than there is for humanities or arts,” Tassava said. “Some of it has to do with the fact that there is an assumption that scientific research leads to outcomes, products, technologies, whereas humanities and arts don’t … on the other hand, an artist who gets a 10,000-dollar grant probably does just as much significant work with it as a scientist who gets a 100,000-dollar grant.”

Tassava said he helps professors applying for grants by drafting budgets, drawing up documents and looking for new funding opportunities.

Rika Anderson, Assistant Professor of Biology, said that in her two years at Carleton, the Corporate and Foundations Relations Office has helped her submit four proposals.

“They have been incredibly helpful in making sure that I have my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed and of getting the budget together, statement of work, signatures from the Dean, all that stuff has been really helpful,” Anderson said.

Like Terrien, Anderson has also applied for grants from NASA, and her work deals with what kind of life could inhabit exoplanets. “I’m interested in the origin of life, and we think that hydrothermal vents, which is what I study, were probably fairly important settings for the origin of life. I study the microbes and the viruses that live there now because I hope to understand how they evolve, how do they survive, to have a better sense of what may have been going on four billion years ago at these same sites,” Anderson said.

“The other part is trying to use DNA sequences of microbes to look back in time…if we can go back in time using DNA sequences and reconstruct what the microbes were doing then, we might be able to predict what was in the atmosphere then, and that will give us more information when we’re looking through telescopes at these exoplanets.”

Terrien said he is optimistic about the information we can learn from studying exoplanets. “When I was born thirty years ago, we didn’t know at all whether there were other planets outside of the solar system. This was the realm of science fiction.” Terrien said.

“Now that we’ve discovered more and more … most stars have planets around them. I think that’s a pretty fundamental shift in how you think about that question of whether we’re alone in the Universe or not.”

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