NASA Astronomers interview for our Subscribathon!

Uploaded by geekandsundry on May 2, 2012


FELICIA DAY: Wow, I am so happy to have you on.
This is a random thing that happened, because I was
emailed by Tim Pyle.
If you guys are familiar with it.
I did a really cool NASA video a couple years ago, where I
kind of walked through the galaxy.
It's very cool.
If you just search NASA Felicia Day,
you'll see it on YouTube.
And he emailed me randomly and was like, hey.
I see you're doing this subscription drive.
Would you like some NASA astronomers?
And I'm like, yes!
So that's how I met Robert and Carolyn.
And is that Varoujan next to you?
This is Varoujan, yes.
FELICIA DAY: Nice to meet--
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: We actually met when you were doing our
video out here.
I recognize you.
It was a while ago.
And you guys, can you just set up exactly how you guys--
what you do?
Tell me what you do.
And guys, if you want any questions about--
please send them to Twitter with hashtag.
And I'm going to Tweet that while you guys talk about
You want to start, Robert?
We're with NASA's Spitzer Science Center.
It's one of NASA's great observatory projects.
It's our sister mission to the Hubble.
We work with infrared light, which I believe you'll be
getting a preview in the other window momentarily.
And a good part of our job is to help communicate science to
everybody, because we do all sorts of incredibly cool
things that scientists do in their labs with their little
cloaks, hiding, mysterious incantation [INAUDIBLE].
But our job is to really try to share that with everybody
else, and let you know what's happening in
the world of science.
That's awesome.
And what about you guys?
So what do you do differently?
You're all not hired for the same thing, right?
What do you specialize in?
So I work as the education outreach
scientist for Spitzer.
I also work for the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.
So yeah, I have two different jobs, basically.
But my work for Spitzer is education
and outreach, mainly.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: I actually do both research and education
outreach for Spitzer.
Part of it is I work with high school science teachers to
give them a real flavor for what science research is like.
And for the rest of my research, I actually study big
black holes at the centers of galaxies [INAUDIBLE].
FELICIA DAY: That's awesome.
ROBERT HURT: And my job at Spitzer is
visualization scientist.
I'm in charge of all of the imagery graphics, data stuff
we produce to put the pictures together for the public.
And I also produce the "Hidden Universe" podcast, which is
one of the two podcasts we're currently running right now
off of Spitzer.
FELICIA DAY: That's very cool.
Now just for people who don't know a lot about Spitzer, can
you just give kind of like the dumbed down, just bare bones
educational version about what the mission is, what it
accomplishes, the technology.
Just talk to me like I'm dumb.
Not dumb, but just I don't know.
No problem.
So you guys have probably all heard of the
Hubble Space Telescope.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: So we're basically the Spitzer, the
sister telescope to the Hubble Space Telescope.
And we look at infrared light, which is heat.
So basically, we're looking out into the universe for
these tiny, little specks of heat.
So one of the reasons that Spitzer is in space is
firstly, we can't see through the
atmosphere in infrared light.
And secondly, the Earth's kind of hot.
So the last thing you want to do when you're looking for
tiny pinpricks of heat out in the universe is stick it slap
bang on something very, very hot.
And so we launched Spitzer into space.
We threw it out into an Earth-trailing orbit, which
basically it follows the Earth around the sun.
So as we orbit the sun, Spitzer follows us.
And then we communicate with it every 24 hours or so.
So we upload a whole bunch of instructions to Spitzer.
And it goes off and it does its thing.
And it observes everything that we tell it to observe.
And then about once every 24 hours it turns its butt back
towards Earth, which is where the high-gain antenna is.
And it beams all the data back down again.
And we beam up a whole bunch of new instructions.
FELICIA DAY: Now, just from a rudimentary thing, Spitzer is
in orbit, but Hubble went out, right?
So we lost--
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Hubble is in orbit around the Earth.
orbit around the sun.
And how is that an advantage?
Because you get to see farther, obviously, right?
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Well, there are two reasons.
It's actually not seeing further.
There are two reasons it's usually advantageous.
The first one is we're not close to a big heat source.
So the problem with sticking it next to a big heat source,
like I said, is you can't see the small heat sources out
there, so it basically keeps it cold.
The second reason is that Hubble has to turn off about
once every 90 minutes, I believe.
It's 90 minutes?
FELICIA DAY: Oh, interesting.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Because as Hubble orbits the Earth, at
same point--
if you're looking in one direction and you're going
around the Earth, you're going to be looking at the Earth at
some point.
So it has to turn itself off as it goes through the
radiation belts near the Earth.
So the great thing about Spitzer is we can literally do
three days of constant observing.
We can turn off that 24-hour cycle and just stare at
something for an entire three or four days.
Things like extrasolar planets, very, very tiny
signals from extrasolar planets.
You get a lot of data.
And we can just constantly observe it, looking for
planets around at the stars.
ROBERT HURT: The other really cool thing about Spitzer's
location, of course, is because we do have to be an
infrared telescope, we're looking at things
that are very cold.
We want to observe things that are maybe only 100 degrees
above absolute zero, 10 degrees above absolute zero.
So we have to keep Spitzer really, really cold or Spitzer
will actually be blinding us with its own light.
And what's amazing about Spitzer is it is actually
designed that floating out there away from the Earth, it
can get down to only like 30 degrees above absolute zero
with no coolant or anything, just passively.
So it's colder than the coldest winter on
Mars, even, I think.
FELICIA DAY: And you have to make on Earth to be able to
survive out there?
I mean, that is kind of incomprehensible the kind of
technology and foresight.
And you can't get it out there and be like, oh no.
That one thing didn't work.
Bring it back.
I mean, it's out there.
We've been out there since 2003.
And even when our coolant expired, which was keeping us
down to only like four degrees above absolute zero, we've
moved into our so-called warm mission.
For us, warm is 30 degrees above absolute zero.
We have a whole different scale.
But everything's been functioning flawlessly, and
well past sort of the design lifetime.
Now who decides what to focus on?
Who's the guy who is like, OK, let's focus on this one thing
and explore that.
Like is there a committee, or is there one guy who's like
the master planner, or what?
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: There's no one guy actually.
There is a committee.
But the committee is a review committee.
What it does is it reviews proposals by lots of different
And it's open to all astronomers across the planet.
It's not just US astronomers.
FELICIA DAY: Oh, really?
And how does someone submit that?
Through like professional astronomy--
is there a guild?
FELICIA DAY: I don't know.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: Basically most professional astronomers
are allowed to submit their proposals.
And there's what's called a call for proposals.
It goes out and says, this is the deadline.
We need your proposal by this time.
People write their proposals.
And it's of their own science interests.
Mine is super massive black holes, and other people's are
different things.
And you're saying, OK, I think you should point Spitzer, or
any other telescope, for three hours at this location and at
this target and do these filters.
And then the committee sits down, looks at it.
And it's called the TAC, or the Time Allocation Committee.
And it looks at it and says, oh, this is a good idea.
This is not a good idea.
And they rank them all.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: And then basically the highest ranked
ones, which fills up all the way down to the full year's
worth of observing, get the observing time.
ROBERT HURT: In a way it's a microcosm of the way the whole
scientific process goes, really.
I mean, there's a lot of science in the news today.
But I think one of the important lessons people take
from this is science isn't one person or two people sitting
up there making these decisions, even down to how
the observations are carried out.
It's a group consensus of what do we think are the most
important science topics.
What are the things we think we can answer?
And then people do their research.
And then likewise, once the papers get published, it kind
of goes out to that same public vetting.
Do we believe the results?
Was it done consistently?
Can we do better?
Science, from the beginning to the end, is this process of
community, I think.
That's interesting to me that you say that, because people
don't often think of it.
We just have this kind of blind eye, like
there's just science.
And it's like some kind of overwhelming god figure that
somehow-- but there's so much research and so much
questioning involved, so that when somebody comes out with a
theory, it's been just literally pecked to death in a
way that makes everybody say, OK.
This is probably true.
Of course, there's always that sliver of like OK.
It might not be true.
But the number of people who question it, it makes you
astounded that anything can come to a consensus.
And it's really the proof is there.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: Well, that's definitely the case.
And part of it is the idea is first of all, it's very
It's rarely just me putting in a proposal.
It's a team that I put together.
So we have to come to a consensus amongst ourselves to
begin with.
And then when the data comes in, and we go through these
various processes, there's definitely an incentive to
make sure that if you think you're right that you're
promoting that idea.
While other people think they're right, they're
promoting their ideas.
And so if you're generally going to come to a consensus,
it takes a long while, like you pointed out.
But at the same time, what's also exciting is when the
consensus is wrong.
And so that's one of the fun things too, is when you come
about and see things about what you thought was right, or
what you thought was mostly this way and then you find a
little sliver and go, hey, wait.
Maybe it's a little bit different, or a lot different.
And that's where it's really exciting.
Hey, Rodney, what's up?
How are you?
I'm good.
How are you?
FELICIA DAY: I'm not sure who--
you're not a scientist, are you?
How'd you get in?
RODNEY: I'm here for the longest distances traveled.
Can you just darken your camera, because I have like
seven or eight more minutes with the NASA scientists.
But you can stay in.
Just turn your camera off.
RODNEY: Yeah, no problem.
FELICIA DAY: Thanks, Rodney.
So my question to you guys is--
I have a couple.
A lot of people are asking on Twitter, Alicia Alexandra
says, does the size and amount of unexplored space ever
overwhelm you and freak you out?
I'm asking you this because I recently read about some of
these guys going into space, in orbit.
And I personally would never want to do that, in a way,
because I would feel so insignificant.
And I would feel like my life is such a small little blip,
like I would get a complex about it.
And do you guys working with this every day, does it feel
like the perspective of you as a human and the amount of the
unknown out there, does it ever intimidate you, as like
ROBERT HURT: Well, I think I got inoculated by Douglas
Adams and the Total Perspective Vortex of
extrapolating the whole infinity of creation from a
piece of fairy cake.
And it's that tiny little sign post, "you are here." But I
don't know.
Personally, I grew up on Star Trek.
I grew up on things where we were
exploring the whole universe.
And for me, that was the wonderment of it.
It doesn't make me feel small.
It makes it all feel so much more unique and amazing that
you have one little rock with us.
And there's nothing like us anywhere else out--
I mean, maybe things kind of like us, but not us, per se,
in this infinite [INAUDIBLE].
So it actually doesn't overwhelm me.
It makes me amazed at everything else that could be
out there to find.
FELICIA DAY: What about the infrared?
Let's-- oh, go ahead.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: From my point of view, actually it's
the reverse.
Although space is vast, but think about this.
We have now, with our instruments and our brains,
managed to understand not everything, but a
large chunk of it.
This is a little bit like one cell of your body
understanding that it's a part of the cells of your
body, of your toe.
And there's a circulatory system and there's your brain
and all the neurons.
And that little cell is understanding
what it's a part of.
So this is actually I think the reverse.
Space is vast, but isn't it amazing that we even have any
understanding of it?
And we're such a tiny part of it, though.
That's so interesting.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: The other pretty cool thing that we need
to remember as well is that we're all completely connected
to space, because every single atom inside of our body was
created inside a star.
You know, anything in this universe that is not hydrogen
or helium was created in the center of a star.
That's how stuff which is heavier elements than hydrogen
and helium gets formed.
It gets formed in the core of a star.
So everything inside our body that's not hydrogen and helium
came from a star.
We are star stuff.
Carl Sagan famously said this.
And he was absolutely right.
So we are intimately connected with the universe in a way
that a lot of people don't even realize.
And that, to me, is just amazing.
FELICIA DAY: That's amazing.
Now behind you--
I don't want to have to end before talking about what's
behind you on the screen.
That's what you guys analyze all day, right?
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: We do analyze a lot of images.
And Spitzer is an infrared telescope, so we're just going
to do a couple of demos of what this
means to be an infrared--
FELICIA DAY: Yeah, yes.
Do that.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: So Carolyn will be helping me out here.
First of all, go with the ice.
With the ice here.
ROBERT HURT: You will note that we are cold-nosed

VAROUJAN GORJIAN: So what we've got here is the screen
behind us is made by a camera that is taking infrared
light-- anything that's warm emits light.
And these are wavelengths that are longer than we're used to
seeing with our own eyes.
And we've set it so that anything that's warm is
glowing orangish.
That's our faces.
Carolyn has a sort of cold-ish nose.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: But then you can make things colder if you
bring a piece of ice.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Can you see that?
Oh wow.

That's crazy.
That's like a rave waiting to happen.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: That's the reality.
All she's done is change the temperature of her skin.
And of course in optical light, all you see is that her
face has gotten a little bit red.
But in reality, you're getting a lot more information when
you're studying it in a different wavelength.
FELICIA DAY: That's crazy.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: But now going on the
hotter side of things--
So this is the cool stuff as well.
So if I turn on this light bulb here,
you can see it there.
But you can also, if I manage to get it into the--

ROBERT HURT: It's blocking it right now.
There we go.
Yeah, wow.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: You're seeing the reflection of it.
FELICIA DAY: Is that the reflection?
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: There's the reflection here, guys.
FELICIA DAY: Oh, there.
I saw it a little bit.
It's a little bit of an angle.
So that's weird.
What is happening there?
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: So what you've seen is the light is
actually getting warmer and warmer and warmer, even though
it's emitting a lot of light here, it's slowly warming up.
This is an incandescent light bulb.
So that's a big advantage.
Of course, warm things emit infrared light.
But then the other thing is that infrared light can be
blocked by certain things.
So here is something that we can see through.
This is just glass.

CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: We'll show you here.
There it is.
Yeah, yeah.
What the hell is happening?
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: Well, this is the greenhouse effect.
This is why you build greenhouses out of glass, so
optical light can penetrate through.
So you can see it in the optical light.
But infrared light can't.
And so it gets trapped and so it keeps warming things up.
While on the other hand--
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Here's another thing you can see,
though, is that if we then turn this off--
So that's how you can tell something--
it's still reflected, but it's dead.
I mean, right?
Basically, it's emitting its own heat.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: It's emitting its
own infrared light.
ROBERT HURT: The filament to the bulb cools off far faster
than the actual body of the bulb, which is the lower
That's amazing.
Well, now you guys make a lot of videos.
Do you have a YouTube channel that I can link to people for
them to be able to kind of see more of this awesome stuff?
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: The best place to go is to our website.
We'll try to link that on the Twitter so we make sure--
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: If you go to the video/audio link, then
you can see more of our videos and audio podcasts.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: Including the one you're in.
I think it's awesome.
And I grew up at a time where when I was a kid it was like--
and I can imagine somebody who grew up in the '60s or '70s,
like there was a whole new frontier opened up.
And the crazy things that we did then, 40 years ago, we're
not even doing now.
We're not getting out to the moon.
We're not pushing the envelope.
And I feel like--
I think the more people know about what's out there, what
we don't know, but the possibilities of what we could
know will help change this perception that we're not
spending money right.
This is what we should be doing.
We should be pushing the envelope of what we know as
humans versus some of the other things, and certainly
not gut the programs and go backwards, which is basically
kind of what we're at now, except for Spitzer out there.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: On the unmanned side
we've done very well.
But definitely there is the issue, like you were saying.
And just to point out, if the federal budget was $1, we
spend less than half a penny on NASA.
It's very, very, very small, and much less than they used
to in the '60s, right?
FELICIA DAY: It was a much larger percentage.
And that's why we were able to go so far and be so pioneering
and really push the outer limits of what we know and
what we're capable of knowing.
And we're all richer for knowing
more about the universe.
And I think that you guys are definitely
representing us awesomely.
So thank you so much.
And thank you for being a guest.
And are you guys on Twitter or anything that
people could find you?
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: I'm on Twitter with csbrinkworth, and
also on Google+ as well, so you can find me
both of those places.
You guys, we have you in a circle.
So we'll link you as well.
So thank you so much, you guys.
CAROLYN BRINKWORTH: Thanks very much.
VAROUJAN GORJIAN: Good seeing you.
Take care.
ROBERT HURT: Happy launch day.