How exoplanets broke the rules of planet formation

19 Oct 2018

Dr Elizabeth Tasker. Image: Ken Yan Photography

Astrophysicist Dr Elizabeth Tasker was in Ireland earlier this month for Space Week. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell about exoplanets, writing books and the quirks of translation.

How do planets form? Is there life outside our own solar system? And do Lego squirrels hang about on asteroids?

Those questions – well, the first two anyway –  are among many that fascinate British astrophysicist and science communicator Dr Elizabeth Tasker, who was in Ireland earlier this month for Space Week. During her visit, she gave several talks on the topic of exoplanets – planets that orbit stars that are not our sun – which is one of the burgeoning fields in space research today.

But what about Lego squirrels? They emerged from Tasker’s work at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). There, she is an associate professor who researches computer models of star and planet formation, and she also helps with the agency’s global outreach.

“They put out information in Japanese and in English, and I help them to translate information for blogposts and Twitter, and I act as a go-between for media,” explained Tasker. “It involves me using Google Translate, leaning on a solid knowledge of planetary science and having a good measure of common sense.”

close-up of rocky surface of grey asteroid.

Ryugu asteroid from an altitude of 6km. Image: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu and AIST

When working on outreach for JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission to land an explorer spacecraft on the Ryugu asteroid, the translation software described the mission as going to the asteroid to collect Lego squirrels. She eventually worked out that it was a quirk of translating from the Japanese word for ‘regolith’, the loose deposits on the surface of the asteroid.

“If we do find any Lego squirrels, there would be some questions,” she laughed. “We would need a rethink of what we think we know about asteroids.”

Exoplanet excitement

That said, there have been a few rethinks along the way in the field of exoplanets – not rethinks that involve finding cute, plastic woodland figures in space, but rethinks that involve exciting data gathered from beyond our solar system.

During her talks for Space Week with the public at Trinity College Dublin and with undergraduates at Dublin City University, Tasker encouraged everyone to think about how exoplanets ‘broke the rules’ of planet formation and led to new theories. “This field is new,” she said. “These ideas are the current ones we have.”

She then travelled to Cork Institute of Technology to speak at a careers roadshow held in conjunction with Blackrock Castle Observatory. There, Tasker spoke to the secondary school students about the search for life beyond our planet.

“This is going to be one of the hottest topics in their working lives, this will be their bread and butter, and they may well be the ones getting data that tell us whether there is life on exoplanets,” she said.

Booking the future

Tasker found her way into science through her parents, both of whom are scientists, and she initially started her research career building computer models of how galaxies form. Then, she turned her attention to planet formation, and that included writing a book called The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth.

Tasker had been writing a blog and popular science articles – she won a Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer Award – and she was approached by an editor to write for Bloomsbury Sigma. “It was a case of opportunity knocks and I said yes,” she said, but the change from writing articles to an entire book was not without its challenges.

“Up until then, the articles I had been writing were about 1,000 words. You could go for a long walk and hold the whole story in your head, then come back and write it. But then, I had to write an initial chapter, which was about 5,000 words. My confidence took a hit and it took a while to get into the pace of the writing.”

But, with a deadline burning, she kept at it, and now she is a person with dyslexia who has written a popular science book. “When I was a child, my handwriting and spelling were terrible, impressively bad, but I became a book author,” said Tasker.

“What you want to do will make you what you want to be.”

blonde woman wearing white and black stripy top bending down to look at the low-facing camera.

Dr Elizabeth Tasker. Image: Ken Yan Photography

Keep broad, dig deep

So, what advice does she have for people who want to work in the space sector? A passion, a broad interest and a deeper speciality form a good mix, she explained.

“Space science is really interdisciplinary and while you need a specialist area, maybe a focus on physics or chemistry or biology where you can go deep – you need to keep a broad interest,” she said.

“Exoplanets used to be the jurisdiction of astrophysics but now we are about to get more atmospheric data from exoplanets and we need people who understand chemistry, climate science and geology. We need people who can work between disciplines.”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication