Talk focus is 'Extrasolar Planets and the Search for Habitable Worlds'

University Park, Pa. -- "Extrasolar Planets and the Search for Habitable Worlds" is a free public lecture that will be given on Jan. 31 on the Penn State University Park campus by Sara Seager, the Ellen Swallow Richards associate professor of planetary science and associate professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event is a Penn State component of the International Year of Astronomy and is the second of six lectures in the 2009 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, a free minicourse for the general public with the theme "Our Universe: From the Big Bang to Life." No registration is required. The lectures take place on six consecutive Saturday mornings from 11 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m. in 100 Thomas Building.

"For thousands of years people have wondered if we are alone in the universe. Now we finally have the tools to routinely measure the sizes, masses and atmospheres of a growing collection of big, hot exoplanets," Seager said. "In parallel, we are searching for a smaller, cooler and potentially habitable planet that is more like our Earth." Seager's lecture will include a tour of the most interesting of the more than 300 planets that have been discovered in recent years outside our solar system.

She will describe recent ground-breaking discoveries with the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes that include the first so-called "direct images" of exoplanets and measurements of the atmospheres of hot exoplanets. She will discuss the race to find potentially habitable exoplanets, which is fueled by the realization that big Earths orbiting small stars can be discovered and characterized with existing technology.

Seager's research focuses on theoretical models of atmospheres, interiors and biosignatures for all kinds of exoplanets. Her research has introduced many new ideas to the field of exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first detection of an exoplanet's atmosphere. She was part of a team that co-discovered the first detection of light emitted from an exoplanet and the first spectrum of an exoplanet.

In 2008 Discover Magazine named Seager one of the "20 Best Brains Under 40," and in 2006 Popular Science included her among its annual "Brilliant Ten" individuals. She is the 2007 recipient of the American Astronomical Society's Helen B. Warner Prize and the Harvard Astronomy Bok Prize in 2004.

Before joining MIT in 2007, she was a member of the senior research staff at the Carnegie Institution of Washington for four years, after having worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., for three years.

Seager has served on a variety of advisory panels and committees, including the recent NASA/National Science Foundation Exoplanet Task Force and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life. In addition, Seager has been involved with many concept studies for exoplanet space missions and is a participating scientist on NASA's Kepler exoplanet-finding mission, which is planned for launch in March 2009. Seager frequently is quoted in the news and is called on to explain exoplanet discoveries to the public.

She earned her bachelor of science degree in math and physics at the University of Toronto and her doctoral degree at Harvard University.

The Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science are a program of the Penn State Eberly College of Science. For more information or access assistance, contact the Eberly College of Science Office of Media Relations and Public Information at or (814) 863-0901. Information also is at online.

Last Updated November 18, 2010