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The Expert

Sky Watcher

Diane Paulson, 27, planet finder

Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page M03

THE FINAL FRONTIER: I've always liked space. When I was in third grade, I played hooky from school the day that Challenger was launched so I could watch it on television. The disaster didn't hinder my desire to study the outer limits, but it did encourage me to figure out non-astronaut career paths. I think it was when I was around 13, when I got my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings through a telescope, that I really started thinking about astronomy. Later, when I was in college, I read a few articles on supernovae and extrasolar planet detection. Exploding stars seemed cool and detecting planets is a straightforward practice -- I felt that it was something I could actually do.

IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY: There are various methods for planet detection. I primarily use the Doppler Shift method. It finds planets indirectly by measuring the gravitational pull a planet has on a star. The pull causes dark lines in the old ROY G. BIV stellar spectrum to move toward the blue end when the star approaches us and toward the red when it moves away. This teeter-tottering movement indicates there's a planet there.

Diane Paulson favors distant planets, Hans Solo and Luke Skywalker. (Nate Lankford For The Washington Post)

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BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY: Soon, we'll be sending a flotilla of new spacecraft to look for planets. But in my opinion, it is unrealistic to expect a spacecraft to actually arrive in a different planetary system and still work. Spacecrafts sent out in the '70s and '80s are just now exiting our solar system. If we think about the technology that built those spacecraft, it's amazing that some still work.

BY ANY OTHER NAME. . .: Unfortunately I don't get to name the planets that I find. There's a boring official designation for planets. If a star has a name of HD 1234, then the first planet discovered around this star would be called HD 1234 b, and the third planet would be c, etc.

STAR WARS Vs. STAR TREK: Hans Solo and Luke Skywalker are tough guys who can get the job done. I admire their bravery. Captain Kirk and Spock are more of the explorer type, and thus more like me. However, if I had to choose which pair are cooler, I'd have to say that Hans and Luke have better hair, are cuter and well, pointy ears are creepy.

As told to Karen M. Hart

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