Antigo Astronomer Searches for Signs of Distant Life

May 6, 2014

Maggie Turnbull lives in Antigo and works as a freelance astrobiologist.  

Globular cluster Terzan 7 is on the other side of our galaxy.
Credit NASA /

  It’s the study of the origin and future of life in the universe.  Turnbull has gained international recognition for her work cataloging star systems that could support life, and is now working with NASA on a telescope to better look at those systems.  WXPR’s Natalie Jablonski spoke with Turnbull over the phone.  

She says the problem is that stars give out so much light, it’s hard to even see the planets that orbit them. 

“Right now the key thing is that we’re working with a design team to build something that would be capable of detecting earth-like planets orbiting the very nearest stars…for a  price tag that could be supported by NASA.”

It’s called the Starshade project.  Turnbull and her colleagues have been working with NASA on the project since July of last year. 

A starshade would block out some of the light from another star, which should make an orbiting planet easier to see.

Still Turnbull says it’s a big undertaking that requires a camera with incredibly high resolution and contrast.

“What we’re trying to accomplish here is not your standard imaging astronomy, not even for the big missions like Hubble that has been launched in the past.  We have to do much better than that.” 

She says there are only a few dozen stars that have the right characteristics and are close enough that scientists can reasonably expect to study their planets. 

Turnbull will be talking about her work at Science on Tap in Minocqua this Wednesday evening.