Kristjan Stone ’08, who received his master’s and Ph.D. in physics from Rice, currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory studying superconducting detectors for satellite missions to explore never before seen galaxies.
Why did you choose space?
Space sort of chose me. While I was at Rice, I studied fundamental semi-conductor low temperature physics, and for my postdoctoral work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab I migrated over to superconducting microdevice detectors. It turns out that the specific, super-sensitive far-infrared detector I was working on could really only work beyond Earth’s atmosphere, which is where space comes in. Since then I have worked primarily on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, an Icy World lander/sampler, and an X-ray source for the next Mars rover.
I’m over the moon about …
Probably one of the neatest things I’m working on is the Icy Worlds lander sampling system, which is basically a robot arm with a chainsaw on the end. It also goes by the acronym ELSA, which sounds like a “Frozen”/“Evil Dead” mashup. It’s also great to see how excited people are about the kinds of things I get to work on and how it will lead to new discoveries for all humanity.
Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?
Actually, when I was a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology working on cutting edge detectors, a realization came to me that blew my mind. It all stems back to a mission by the name of Spitzer, which was the first real attempt at putting an infrared detector on a satellite. They pointed the satellite out into the blackness of space in an area that was known not to hold any stars. It covered about the size of your thumbnail when you stretch out your arm. The resulting image that came back was completely filled with galaxies that we had never seen before or even knew existed.
Fast forward 10 years from that discovery and consider that the detector I am working on is 1000x more sensitive than anything else in the far infrared region. With this new detector in operation, we will be able to see these dust-shrouded galaxies and the resulting red shift as they move away from us. This should result in us being able to calculate their age at a theoretical time of around ~12.5 billion years in the past as the universe was forming.
What blows me away is that in such a short time, we went from knowing about a lot of visible galaxies, to having all the space between those galaxies filled with more galaxies, and in the near future being able to look back farther than ever before and witness those galaxies form.