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In Search for Earth-like Planets, UMass Lowell, NASA Mark Successful Telescope Launch

Mission Helps Train Next Generation of Space Scientists

PICTURE-C in flight Photo by NASA
This view, captured by a camera mounted on the balloon gondola of POICTURE-C shows the telescope successfully reaching a height of about 24 miles above the Earth on Sept. 28.


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With an eye to the future, UMass Lowell researchers are not just educating and training the next generation of space scientists and explorers, they are searching for similar planets to sustain human life.

The first step, however, is to find them and that is the goal of “PICTURE-C,” the Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment-Coronagraph. Funded by a $5.6 million, five-year NASA grant, the device boasts a unique imaging system designed to block starlight so objects close to them – including planets and debris that would otherwise be hidden – can be studied in detail. 

“In our pursuit of space exploration, we are training the next generation of astronomers, space scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of various missions, from instrument development to data analysis,” said UMass Lowell Physics Professor Supriya Chakrabarti. 

For students and faculty alike, designing, building and launching a 1,500-pound, 14-foot wide by 3-foot device, said Chakrabarti, director of the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST), goes beyond a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “PICTURE-C is enabling us to gain a better understanding of the processes and dynamics that formed our own solar system,” he said.

NASA successfully launched PICTURE-C Sept. 28 from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Led by Chakrabarti, the research team behind the mission includes Physics Associate Professor Timothy Cook, Assistant Research Professor Christopher Mendillo, Physics Postdoctoral Researcher Kuravi Hewawasam and physics doctoral student Thaddeus Porter. LoCSST is housed within the university’s Kennedy College of Sciences.

The team’s charge isn’t complete yet. Earlier this year, Mendillo was awarded a $7 million grant from the space agency to advance the telescope’s capabilities, through a program dubbed “PICTURE-D.” This initiative will focus on further refining the device’s imaging capabilities.

Along with work on PICTURE-D, UMass Lowell faculty will continue educating the next generation of space researchers through programs such as SPACE HAUC – a project that gave students hands-on experience designing and building a miniature satellite – and analyzing the images captured by PICTURE-C during its 14-hour flight. The data captured includes observances of the stars known as Vega (Alpha Lyrae), one of the brightest in the sky, and Epsilon Eridani.  

“Dust had been detected around Vega, so it’s thought to have a very big and bright debris disk close to it. It’s never been imaged directly in visible light,” explained Mendillo, recently named by NASA as a Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellow. “Epsilon Eridani, which is also fairly bright, is believed to have a Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting the star, but no one has seen the planet yet.”

UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe.