Maggie Turnbull Brings Search for Habitable Planets to “Science on Tap”

Photo: UW-Madison Department of Astronomy
Photo: UW-Madison Department of Astronomy

A typical work day for Maggie Turnbull might involve watching the birds in her backyard, heading out for a long cross-country ski, or working at the farmer’s market she helped found in Antigo, the small northern Wisconsin town she calls home.
Yet the UW-Madison alum’s work is anything but typical. Sometimes, she boots up up her laptop to scour NASA databases for potentially habitable planets. Other times, she’ll work on another task, called “Starshade,” a collaborative attempt to build a better telescope.
Years ago, Turnbull left a prestigious job with Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute to pursue a career as an independent astronomer, a career move that would be a better balance for her both professionally and personally. Now a renowned “freelance” astrobiologist, she will bring her stories of life on the fringes of astronomgy to the Minocqua Brewing Company next Wednesday, May 6th, for “Science on Tap.
We asked Maggie a few questions about her unorthodox career arc and what she’ll have to say next Wednesday.
CFL: How did you get interested in astronomy?

MT: That question is always funny to me. I mean, have you ever met a child that didn’t want to be an astronaut or travel to another planet? I guess, if you just have a sort of genuine interest growing up, then I think [the key] is to just keep doing it – go to college, go to grad school, apply for post docs and, eventually, ‘Ta da! You’re an astronomer!”
CFL: Okay, so how did you get interested in astrobiology (the study of life in the universe)?
MT: All along the way [in college] I was straying off the path and drawn to the ultimate big picture of the universe – astrobiology. I mean if you look at the network of relationships that were needed to sustain life [on Earth], where our sun formed and how materials are moved around and the planetary structure and the need for a fairly protected environment over billions of years to let life form, you start thinking about all of those different knobs that could’ve been turned a little differently and that are turned differently for other planets. How did that affect life or the possibility of life?
I find everything about life on Earth to be so interesting. Like the bird-waching groups and everything they know about bird behavior, and everything limnologists know about the photic zone and how lakes evolved.
I think what keeps me going professionally is that, if I was just studying one singular object, I would get bored and lose interest. Sure, in my daily work I’m starting at spreadsheets and looking at numbers and having long discussions with my colleagues about why one number is different from another number. But, it’s such a beautiful “big picture” that I can personally relate to and feel like I can have a personal connection to what I’m studying.
Image via Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo
Image via Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

CFL: How does one then get started freelancing in such a field?
MT: There’s no path. It’s not a route that I could recommend to young people coming into the field, because it’s you have to invent everything as you go along. I actually wasn’t sure what would happen and, very sensibly, my colleagues advised against [my career move] and basically thought I was leaving astronomy. But I resisted. I knew that I wanted more – it was a good set up professionally, but it wasn’t personally very satisfying to me. I’d already said I would waitress or take any job if I wasn’t able to support myself as a freelance astrobiologist. I wasn’t going to walk around like I was too good for something just because I have my PhD.
On my way in to Baltimore that morning [to announce my resignation], my phone rang and it was a colleague who I hadn’t talked to in years and he asked if I’d be willing to lead a research project he’d just got funding for and it was the first “Starshade” project. I said “absolutely,” and, before I’d even got to work, I’d reached out to some people to start building the science team for it. Even today some of them are still on the project.
 CFL: Can you describe the Starshade project?
MT:  Every star is shining so brightly, that it blocks out the light of the planets around it [in a telescope], Planets just reflect the star’s light, and they’re so tiny, for example, Earth is one-ten-billionth of the light of the sun and the only way to get rid of that light [when looking through a telescope] is physically block it or find a way to cancel it out.
A “starshade” is a free flying shade attached to a telescope. You fly the entire telescope within the shadow of this shade, and then [the telescope] can still see the tiny little planets around it. The problem that we’re finding is that, once you allow star light into the telescope, you can do absolute state-of-the-art work minimizing it, but there’s going to be some flaw or imperfection somewhere that, once the light comes in, it’s going to end up getting in and reflected and scattered around. So the starshade makes sure that no light gets into the telescope in the first place and you can start to see these tiny little bright flecks of light near a star. As time goes on, we’re becoming more and more convinced that the only way to see Earth-like planets near a star is to do it with the starshade.
CFL: What would you like to have accomplished by the end of your career?
MT: If I could have anything I wanted, it would be that this idea of flying a starshade with a telescope would be more and more accepted as an obvious answer to the future kinds of science we want to do and that, in the next few decades, we will have actually flown one near promising stars. And I would like to have a list of promising planets [that may harbor other forms of life]. I want to know that they have water and oxygen. And even all of that is just opening the door for future generations to walk through and find other life or colonize or even just send a probe or something. I mean, come on, I least want photographs!