KU astronomers want answers to a big question: What else is out there?

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Two University of Kansas professors have helped decide that national astronomy research priorities for the next decade should focus first and foremost on the most curious question in their field.

Ian Crossfield, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and David Besson, a professor of the same subjects, both served on panels contributing to the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics.


The panels gave recommendations and produced a report, which will help set national funding priorities for the next 10 years. 

“It felt very humbling to be able to be a part of that process because it’s your responsibility as a member of that committee to advocate for the best science that’s reasonably achievable in the coming years,” Crossfield said. “But it was also very exciting, because it’s a chance to help put our strongest foot forward in the years to come.”

Justin Knight Ian Crossfield

Crossfield specializes in exoplanets — planets that can be found beyond our solar system — and leads the ExoLab at KU. The ExoLab is a group of researchers who focus on studying exoplanets, other solar systems, and the stars those planets orbit around, Crossfield said.

“We’ve got people engaged in a variety of work, from using data from NASA space telescopes to find new planets, using telescopes on the ground to figure out what are the properties of those planets? How heavy are they? What are their atmospheres like?” Crossfield said.

“We’ve also got people working on studying the detailed chemical composition of the stars that these things are orbiting, trying to get a sense of how the star that the planet is orbiting relates to the properties of that planet.”

Ultimately, this knowledge would help us understand if these exoplanets are habitable, which leads to the key question in astronomy, and the one that Crossfield’s panel was intensely focused on as they made their recommendations. 

“Our committee, after many deliberations, decided that our top priorities in the coming years are to address the most exciting of big astronomy questions that still remain out there: is there life out there in the universe or not?” Crossfield said.

“Even if it was just algae and single-celled bacteria, that would still be a revolutionary and exciting discovery. And in the next 10 or 20 years, we’re finally going to have the telescopes that are able to make measurements precise enough that we’re going to be able to start to answer that question. That was absolutely our top priority, and there was very little disagreement about that within our panel.”

Crossfield was also recently part of a team that, for the first time ever, discovered a planet orbiting a white dwarf star, pushing KU’s program into further prominence. As the university’s astronomy program continues to grow, members are looking forward to increasing research and outreach efforts.

Jupiter-size WD 1856 b is nearly seven times larger than the white dwarf it orbits every day and a half. Astronomers, including Ian Crossfield of KU, discovered it in 2020 using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

“We’re in the process of getting a small planetarium system that’s going to be delivered and running here at KU. We’re excited to get that facility set up and do some more science outreach to the community of Lawrence and the broader region, and also to all of the students here at the university as well,” Crossfield said. 

When considering the problems facing the planet Earth today, one argument many stargazers hear is that, as a society, we shouldn’t worry about things beyond our planet until we’ve solved all the problems here at home. However, Crossfield says there is incredible value in studying the cosmos.

“My response to that is what do they think the timeline is on solving all of our problems here? Maybe five years from now? Maybe the next 15 years?” he said, noting that there will always be issues to deal with on Earth, and that’s no reason that we shouldn’t try to learn about our place in the cosmos.

“By studying all of these diverse populations of other planets around other stars, we gain a much better sense of uniqueness and the importance of a planet like Earth, and we put our own planet in the broader context of the universe.”

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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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