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.
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.