Q&A with Astronomy student Ethan Kruse

Ethan Kruse

Ethan Kruse is an Astronomy Ph.D. candidate using the eclipse method to discover new planets. As the total solar eclipse — already dubbed the “Great American Eclipse”— approaches, we talked with Ethan about astronomy, his research and what it all means for the public.  

Your research is about discovering planets via the “eclipse method.” What is the eclipse method?

My research focuses on discovering new planets around other stars. When the August 21 eclipse happens, the moon is going to pass in front of the sun, and block out all of the light. And the whole sky will go dark. The eclipse, or transit method works like this We’re looking at other stars, and when the planets pass in front, they block some of the light. They don’t block all the light, like the moon will do, but they block enough of the light that we can see the star get dimmer. We use that dimming to learn how big the planet is, how long its year is, how far away it is from the star, and all kinds of things like that.

How did you become interested in this research?

I had a great professor in college as an undergrad. He was able to show his passion for exoplanets and pass that on to me. Then I started doing research, and haven’t really stopped.

What are other ways eclipses are used in astronomy?

There’s a lot. If you look very closely at these eclipses, you can learn what’s in the atmosphere of the planets because the light from the star passes through the atmosphere and then comes to us. So scientists use transits, or eclipses, to figure out what’s in other atmospheres of planets.

So, while for the public the eclipse is mostly a spectacle, this eclipse event has a lot of meaning for scientists?

There are going to be scientists all over the country using this eclipse as the chance of a decade  or even a century  to do some really cool science.

Will it help advance your science?

I’m just going to go for fun  it’s going be awesome.

So you’re not sick of thinking about eclipses?

No, I’m really excited to see such a dramatic one. In my research, it takes a whole bunch of work to tease out these tiny dips of light made by other planets, and make sense of it. But the upcoming eclipse is supposed to be beautiful and amazing, so I’m just really excited to experience it. This will be my first time actually watching an eclipse.

Where will you watch it from?

I’m a sports fan  so (my family and I) are going to a baseball game in Salem (Oregon), where they’ll be taking an eclipse delay. They’ll pause the game, watch the eclipse for a while, and then resume playing. It’ll be the perfect way to watch some baseball, and also this amazing scientific event.

Is there anything you would advise a layperson to look for during the eclipse?

This will be my first direct experience with one  but I would strongly caution to bring the right eye protection. The big danger will be people not treating the sun as dangerous, when it is. (There’s a potential to cause serious eye damage from looking directly at the sun, even if you’re wearing sunglasses. Learn more about the proper eyewear.).

Do you star gaze?

Yeah, I had a reputation in college for walking out of a building at night and naturally just looking up, even though you can’t see many stars in Boston. I love getting out of the city and finding dark skies. I’ve always wanted to go to the southern hemisphere and see the different view they have there.

Is there something about your research that might surprise a member of the general public?

I think the big thing we’re discovering these days is just how common, how diverse planets are in the universe. They always surprise us with where they can form and the different kinds of planets that are out there. It’s going to be an exciting next few years as we start to figure out what’s in their atmospheres and how many could potentially host life.

What do you see as the public impact of your work?  

It’s about answering some of the fundamental questions that humans have been asking for forever: where did we come from, are we alone in the universe, and what’s in store for the future. The more we understand how planets form in general, the more we can understand about our own earth and solar system, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

published August 17, 2017