02 | An Astronomer Searches for Life in Other Solar Systems
Physicist Patricia Cheng focuses her research on one of the most fascinating subjects a human being can investigate: Is there life in other solar systems? She has narrowed her inquiries to roughly 60 stars that, like our sun, are all on the cool side – about 8,000 degrees Kelvin. They are the most likely supporters of life-sustaining planets. Once she identifies a star, Cheng has to mask its brilliance so she can study its planets as well as the interstellar dust and gases.
Cheng gets more than a visual take on her targets, thanks to infrared, ultraviolet and far-ultraviolet technologies. Even X-ray and radio waves help to distinguish inconsequential dust from particles that some day might harbor life. Her research yields few epiphanies, but it’s replete with small successes that add pieces to an almost unfathomably big puzzle.
Because Cheng is a teacher as well as a researcher, her students benefit from her expertise. Cheng’s office shows how she connects with her astronomy students as well as those in her basic physics and upper-level classical mechanics classes. A Hula-Hoop helps her explain how objects maintain orbits, while a Frisbee-like toy allows students to visualize proto-stellar disks that are thought to presage planets. Five of Cheng’s students have gone on to earn or pursue graduate degrees in astronomy at San Diego State, and several are now working astronomers.
NASA has supported Cheng’s research for 18 years with grants totaling more than $800,000. “Her work has been extraordinarily well funded, which speaks volumes for the interest it generates,” says Roger Nanes, former Physics Department chair.