"The Casual 'Cheers!' Moves Over To Make Way for a Buzz!" -- Life on the Inside, As Told by an Intern
Written by Sara Leeper, Spitzer Science Center
April 1, 2005
This article is a followup to "Astronomese", posted on January 28, 2005 and "Finding My Way", posted on February 9, 2005.
|A frame from an animation showing how Spitzer for the first time saw light from a planet around another star.
The terms, names and acronyms are rolling off my tongue now, and the building really isn't as confusing to navigate as it first seemed to be. After settling in here, things seem to be running smoothly and the atmosphere is one that is quite casual and laid-back (I too have adopted the closing line of "cheers" that everyone attaches to end of their emails)
Since Spitzer is in the business of scientific discovery, every once and a while there is a kind of controlled buzz that infuses the place. This was the case one such day when the assistant director of public affairs came into our office and shut the door behind him. He had come to confirm that Spitzer had made planetary history by detecting the first light from planets outside of our solar system! Two separate observers had submitted papers about their findings of these planets orbiting a star similar to our own sun -- signs that there were other solar systems like our own out in space!
I can remember him saying something like, "sometimes space is damn cool!" Everyone was so excited, and it was amplified by the fact that this news was to be kept "confidential." I felt honored to be in this building on the day that space exploration was changed. I wanted to go home and tell everyone about what important piece of history I had just witnessed, but I couldn't!
I was able to dial in to a telecon about a week later in order to listen in on how they were going to release the findings. One of the most challenging aspects of working at an observatory is relaying the information out to the rest of the world in a way that is going to remain true to the science while trying to spark some attention and interest.
I realize now that there are multiple management levels that need to approve any news like this that goes out, and sometimes that can be frustrating because it attaches a lead weight to the date when we can release the discovery. Double, triple, quadruple-checking the papers for accuracy and then receiving the final sign-off from the multitudes of those involved is definitely a good test of patience. I'm assuming people around here are used to this because they seem very good at restraining the urge to start a chain of rumors that would beat anything that headquarters could officially put out.
Before NASA could make any plans about when to release the information, we had to get the article's final publication date from the science journal that approved it. We weren't allowed to speak about the discovery before they posted the article on their website (March 22).
Once we knew when we could take action, we had to figure out how to do it. The people at the top decided to roll out the red carpet, as it were. They would conduct a NASA Science Update (NSU ... here we go with those acronyms again), which was a press conference from NASA headquarters in D.C.
Every day I get to see the levels of people hard at work to make such discoveries possible. There isn't enough room here to describe the processes that must occur for something like this to happen. The driving force behind this, of course, is passion -- passion for astronomy, passion for science, passion for discovery. It is an amazing rush to observe!