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Inside the planet hunter's lair

Geoff Marcy, astronomy’s Indiana Jones, had 10 days, one telescope, and a universe of planets to discover.

By Frank KosaCorrespondent / August 5, 2008

Dan Vasconcellos

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Berkeley, Calif.

An astronomer’s job generally comes with breathtaking views from delightfully remote peaks, in observatories perched on mountaintops far from city lights. But tonight, Geoff Marcy is bunkered in the basement of a building so close to a rock concert that you can’t even find a parking space.

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Yet he’s on a volcano. Kind of.

From a swivel chair in the basement of the astronomy department at the University of California, Berkeley, he’s directing the world’s largest functioning telescope, on Hawaii’s 14,000-foot Mauna Kea volcano. Dr. Marcy’s remote-controlled system of interconnected computers, screens, and a real-time audiovideo connection shows him what the telescope is “seeing” – and it’s not the twinkling light of a distant star. Rather, the screens fill with the spectrum of colors that starlight produces. To the untrained eye, it’s no more than a blotch of 1960s psychedelia.

Marcy is a planet hunter, a kind of Indiana Jones of the astronomy world – supposing Jones had been armed with millions of dollars’ worth of stargazing technology instead of a whip and searched galaxies rather than jungles.

An astronomy professor at UC Berkeley, clad tonight in a Hawaiian shirt in homage to the telescope’s homeland, he has the rare privilege of 10 consecutive nights on the Keck, during which he’s searching for planets beyond our solar system.

His days are long: five to seven hours of daily preparation, during which he comes up with a “script” of which stars he and his “ace” postdoctoral fellow, Andrew Howard, will look at that night; on top of that, there’s the routine calibration and testing of the scope – and all of this takes place well before nightfall in Hawaii.

As for the viewing, Marcy and Dr. Howard will work from about 10:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., sometimes with relief from a student who comes in at 4 a.m. This isn’t Marcy’s first time on the Keck – he’s spent more than 250 days on the telescope over the course of his career – but to have 10 days at a stretch is extraordinary, a privilege based partly on Marcy’s reputation and partly on a broader excitement about planet hunting.

Marcy has been searching for these “extrasolar planets” longer than just about anyone else in the field, and his success has been, well, astronomical. He and his team have found nearly 150 planets so far – more than any other astronomer.

“Geoff is one of the pioneers,” says Alan Boss, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. “Fifteen years ago, there were just a dozen planet hunters. Today, there are hundreds.” What Marcy and a few others touched off was something Dr. Boss calls “The New Space Race” – the race to find a planet like Earth.

Marcy began searching for extrasolar planets in 1983, a choice that was actually born of failure. He was halfway through a two-year fellowship, toiling on a subject having nothing to do with planets, when a prominent Harvard astronomer wrote that his work was all wrong. Marcy was devastated.

“I felt like my career was over before it had even begun,” he says. “So I decided that before I quietly went off to teach for the rest of my life, I would spend the second year of the fellowship doing what I really wanted to do.”

His dream was to find a planet like Earth – a finding that “would supersede the discovery of fire.” But no one had done it before; no one thought it was possible; and no one was seriously looking, because the technology was entirely inadequate. Planet hunting, recalls Marcy, was considered astronomy’s “lunatic fringe.”

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