Today, airplanes get us from A to B. With more stringent TSA regulations, summer thunderstorm patterns and increasingly congested airports, air travel has lost its charm. Most of the time, flying is a major pain in the rear end.
But for LSU alum Edward Montiel, flying is pure magic (or actually, science). One airplane in particular, named SOFIA, is serving a bigger purpose for Ed. He has looked out of the windows of this plane to see breath-taking displays of the Northern Lights, and he has used the onboard telescope to visualize stars and planets at levels of detail not possible with any other telescope bound to Earth’s surface, using infrared spectrography. This is no ordinary airplane.
Ed looks to the stars as an astronomer and a federal contractor at NASA Ames. He graduated with his PhD from the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy in August, 2016 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Davis. We asked Ed to tell us more about his life in the stratosphere.
LSU College of Science: What’s the coolest part about your job at NASA?
Ed: I am part of the Echelon-Cross-Echelle Spectrograph (EXES) instrument team. The coolest part is that EXES flies on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), or the world's largest flying telescope! Instead of being located on a mountain like many other observatory telescopes, it’s on an airplane.
The plane flies between 40,000 and 45,000 feet above the earth at night, about 10 hours at a time, to perform our observations. EXES is a spectrograph, which means it breaks up light into its individual parts. As opposed to a camera where you are taking a picture of the light and then you look at the spatial distribution of that light, we’re actually looking at the individual parts of the light, or its spectra. There are challenges, however, because we are battling air turbulence while trying to do observations.
As a part of the EXES instrument team, I help process data for guest investigators using SOFIA and deliver science-ready data to them for their analyses. During our May flight series, we conducted observations with the objective of directly detecting water plumes coming out of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The guest investigators for that project should have recently received their data and will hopefully be able to see the water or determine the limit in their data. Detecting any water directly on Europa would probably be one of the more exciting results from EXES.
LSU College of Science: Can you tell us more about SOFIA? What makes this observatory special?
Ed: Astronomers have a bit of a love-hate relationship with our own atmosphere. Our atmosphere protects us from harmful rays that travel through space. But it also blocks infrared light that can tell us more about planets and stars.
There are some windows where infrared light makes it all the way down to Earth’s surface, at least on mountain tops, so that we can observe objects in space from the ground. But the water in our atmosphere absorbs much of this infrared light. SOFIA takes advantage of the fact that an airplane can get above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere. The result is like an open window into space.
Imagine trying to look for the sun on a cloudy day. If you go above the clouds, everything suddenly becomes brighter and clearer. SOFIA provides us this clearness from water vapor, in the infrared spectra, when we reach a certain altitude.
LSU College of Science: How many times have you flown on SOFIA? And when will you fly again?
Ed: I am up to 14 flights. We don’t fly again until January, 2018. Some of our targets are best observed in January, so we just have a long break between them. Before our flights in January, we will be taking the instrument apart to help optimize some things and then putting it back together and testing it.
LSU College of Science: What is the craziest thing that has happened while you have been on a flight?
Ed: During the last flight of our March series, we had a strong electronic error in the plane between what controls the telescope and the instruments. We had to reboot essentially everything in the air a few times, so we did lose a whole leg of science data collection during that time, but it was fortunate that the people who were on the flight are so talented that they were able to salvage the rest of the flight for us.
There was a slight benefit for us during that time that we were flying really North over Canada, so we could look out the window and see the Aurora Borealis really nicely. There was give and take.
LSU College of Science: Recently, you had a notable flight for which an astronaut joined you?!
Ed: Yep, on our last flight series we had John Grunsfeld with us! He is a former NASA astronaut and has serviced the Hubble Space Telescope three times. So a lot of our jokes are about how this flight would be “low”-key for him.
LSU College of Science: What research have you conducted with EXES and what is the process for applying for instrument time?
Ed: I like to research the environment around older stars, or stars near the end of their life phase. I explore the elements older stars are shedding back to the interstellar medium that goes into creating the next generation of stars, planets, and potentially life on those planets.
SOFIA’s next call for proposals are due at the end of the month for Cycle 6, which will begin after January, 2018. Even though I am part of an instrument team, I still have to submit my own proposals and go through the same application process as every other scientist who wants to use SOFIA. You have to justify why your observations are important for the larger astronomy community as well as why SOFIA is essential to your research. This will be my first time applying for EXES time to conduct my own observations.
LSU College of Science: What is your favorite part of research?
Ed: My favorite part is the payoff when you can get to the point of asking, did we answer our research question or not? Did we answer the question at all, or were we completely wrong? It is like the end of putting together a puzzle. You put the last piece in and say “Wow”! Or, “What else do we need? Was there a larger puzzle or not?”
LSU College of Science: What is your next step after postdoc? Do you want to pursue academia or continue to work for NASA?
Ed: I would like to continue on the academic tract as long as I can before trying something like an industry position. I currently have two years of funding plus one possible extra year for this postdoc position.
LSU College of Science: Now a blast to the past, what brought you to LSU? What was your research topic for your doctorate degree?
Ed: During my undergrad research, I hopped around to a lot of different projects. After I graduated in 2010, I worked in the infrared group at the Steward Observatory at The University of Arizona. Through some collaborators, I met Geoff Clayton, a professor of physics and astronomy at LSU. I started my PhD at LSU in August, 2012.
I came to LSU working on a research project on evolved stars in the galaxy M33, which is the third largest galaxy of our local group. Once that project finished, I started to work on my thesis project, for which I studied the dust shells around R Coronae Borealis (RCB) variable stars. These stars are among some of the most interesting stars in our universe. RCB stars are interesting because unlike stars like the sun or even Tabby’s star that are mostly made of hydrogen, RCB stars are 98% helium. They differ from pretty much every other star in the universe. Not only that, they form thick clouds of carbon dust that can block the light from the star so they can fade by up to 9 magnitudes from their bright maximum light. I investigated the origin of these dust shells and what makes RCB stars.
Keep your eye out for the published paper!
LSU College of Science: What was your favorite part of your time at LSU?
Ed: In 2015, I got to go up to NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea in Hawaii with Geoff Clayton and do observing from the top of Mauna Kea. My coolest observing experience has still been on SOFIA, but in terms of scenery, being in Hawaii was fun!
While it may seem intimidating to have to compete with students graduating from prestigious schools like Harvard, what you might not realize is that at LSU you have the opportunity to work with people that are world experts in their fields. If you take a step back and look, you’re actually in a really great position being at LSU. You can pursue your career and end up at NASA or eventually get the job at one of those prestigious schools.
LSU College of Science: What advice do you have for undergraduates and graduates that want to work for NASA or just job hunting in general? What are the different options for working at NASA?
Ed: Don’t be afraid to just try. Apply for jobs and see what happens. Put yourself out there and try to get in on projects. Ask someone, “Is there something that I can do to help you out with your project?” It will get your foot in the door and you may become an essential part of the project. Start building a network of people whom you can talk to for career advice and letters of recommendation.
At NASA Ames, there are different options for working full-time. The first option is as a civil servant (government position) working directly for NASA. But there’s also the University Space Research Association (USRA), and you can also be hired as a contractor.