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NASA honors Notre Dame prof

Teacher seeking habitable planets

– Justin Crepp spends quite a bit of his time staring off into space.

But that’s a good thing. Crepp is an assistant professor of physics at Notre Dame and has recently been awarded two prestigious designations from NASA for his work in looking for extrasolar planets, or planets outside our solar system.

Crepp is specifically looking for planets that may be habitable. One of his two recent designations as a Kepler Participating Scientist indicates he’s working with a larger network of scientists. The other designation, an Early Career Fellowship, is one he alone holds in NASA’s “Origins of Solar Systems” research program, the South Bend Tribune reported.

The Kepler observatory is part of NASA’s Discovery program and involves the Kepler spacecraft that was launched into orbit in 2009 to send data to scientists on Earth – free from distortions from Earth’s atmosphere and other factors, according to Crepp.

Both of Crepp’s designations come with grant money, and he’s now heading a three-year project to design an instrument to attach to high-powered telescopes to detect and categorize exoplanets – pretty unprecedented, according to Crepp.

One technique used by scientists to find exoplanets is the “transit” technique, Crepp explained. Essentially, they watch a star and wait for the light to dim, telling the scientists that an object, perhaps a planet, has passed in front of it. If they look long enough, they can see it happen again, use some of their math and physics skills, and find out information on its orbit and other characteristics.

Crepp’s new instrument, called iLocater, will utilize the Doppler method – similar to how police officers use speed radar – to search for changes in frequency of the light, Crepp explained. It will work at unprecedented levels of precision enhanced by adaptive optics – basically adjustable glasses on the telescope to focus its vision in reaction to distortion from Earth’s atmosphere.

At first, the instrument will be used in conjunction with the Sarah L. Krizmanich telescope, a 0.8-meter reflective telescope that sits on the roof of Notre Dame’s Jordan Hall of Science.

Eventually, it will be used at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Arizona, Crepp said, which is under significantly clearer skies than is South Bend.

Crepp does research at a large telescope about once every month or two, he said. They’re located in places with high elevation, mostly clear weather and stable atmosphere, such as Arizona, Hawaii or Chile, to name a few.

“Most astrophysicists go to a telescope for a few days of observation and then spend months trying to make sense of it,” Crepp said.