By Joan F. Simoneau, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Is there an Earth-like planet in an Earth-like orbit? We are very close to answering that question, was the message Dr. Dawn M. Gelino conveyed to Marlborough Rotarians and guests at a recent meeting. NASA's Kepler mission team, which tries to locate and identify Earth-like planets, has discovered two Earth-size planets, the smallest ever discovered orbiting a star like the sun, she said.
These two planets, along with the large number of new possibilities, and the planet discovered in the “habitable zone” have the Kepler team starting 2012 on an enthusiastic note – anxious to find more habitable-zone planets and to discover if they are similar in size to our own.
In her presentation, Gelino explained how the Kepler Science team members are advancing the exoplanet field with additional important discoveries.
She is the daughter of Susanne Morreale Leeber, president and CEO of the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce, who attended the Rotary meeting with other family members.
Gelino's official title is scientist and task lead, Science Affairs, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, Caltech. She received a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 2001 at New Mexico State University and a CASS postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California – San Diego. She accepted a position with Caltech eight years ago.
“Among my various tasks, I run the Sagan Exoplanet Program for the NASA Headquarters Astrophysics Division,” she said. “This includes running the annual Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship Program, which awards the best and brightest scientists who have just received their Ph.D.s, a three-year fellowship at a U.S. institution of their choice and various workshops around the world that teach astronomers to find and characterize extrasolar planets [planets that orbit a star other than our sun],” Gelino said.
She also runs NASA's portion of the time on the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii, giving telescope time to scientists at U.S. institutions to make their research possible.
Last year Gelino gave a presentation on extrasolar planets to Charles Bolden, the head administrator at NASA. In addition, the team that she leads received a 2011 NASA Honor Award at a ceremony at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for “outstanding support of the Exoplanet Science Community through workshops, conferences, fellowships and administration of observing time allocation.”
“This is a very prestigious award, and I was very honored to accept it,” she said.
On the science front, Gelino works on determining the masses of black holes, as well as finding and characterizing extrasolar planets. She has traveled to many different observatories throughout the world – to use telescopes to enhance her study – including Chile, Hawaii and France.
Gelino and a colleague recently launched a new website at http://www.hzgallery.org/, which is dedicated to tracking the orbits of exoplanets in relation to their habitable zones. She is married to NASA scientist Dr. Christopher Gelino. They have two children, Alex, 7, and Molly, 4.