Northern Irish mathematician helps NASA find life on other planets

A Northern Irish mathematician is working with NASA as they try to determine whether or not there might be life on other planets.

Dr. Caoimhe Rooney is in her third year working with the famous space agency where she is studying exoplanets found outside our solar system to see if they are capable of hosting life.

She also hopes to one day become an astronaut and has recently undergone training to prepare for possibly going to space one day.

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Speaking to Belfast Live, Caoimhe described how her ability and love for math helped her unlock a very unique career path for someone from Northern Ireland and that while she was in school, she never imagined that the subject might lead her to work with NASA. .

The former Sullivan Upper School pupil said: “Mathematics has always been something I enjoyed, although there was a brief period during my GCSEs when I felt a little disenchanted because I didn’t wasn’t sure what I could do with it.



Dr. Caoimhe Rooney is a mathematician who works with NASA to help find life on other planets

“It was only after graduating from Trinity College and doing my PhD at Oxford that I realized how many doors this could open in my career.

“Because math is the foundation of everything, I can dive into many different areas and as long as you know math, you can break things down into fundamentals.”

Caoimhe works in the planetary systems branch of NASA where she derives and solves mathematical models of exoplanet atmospheres.

The goal is to use the light from these planets to determine what they are made of and whether or not they might harbor extraterrestrial life.

She said: “Our data is collected by telescopes such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope which observe planets and collect data.

“They do this by detecting the light reflected or emitted by the planets which can then be broken down into different wavelengths. It’s like a rainbow where the light is broken down into different colors, that is, say that visible light is simply broken down into different wavelengths. This is called spectroscopy and it can be used to find out what the planet is made of.

“I’m involved in modeling these planetary spectra given particular gases in its atmosphere or other characteristics of the planet.



Caoimhe hopes to go to space one day and has been training to become an astronaut scientist

“There are many candidate exoplanets that might be suitable for life because they satisfy what we understand to be the prerequisites for life as we know it, but without being able to actually travel to the planets it is very difficult to determine if life would actually be there.”

Caoimhe said his experience at NASA was amazing, with the highlight being being able to meet and work with brilliant people who taught him about some of the cutting-edge research they do and shared their experiences in planetary science.

She says the biggest challenge of her career so far has been discovering that was a possibility.

Caoimhe said: “People in Northern Ireland don’t know that working with organizations like NASA is something you can do with maths and people are often not aware of these opportunities. them.

“I was in my twenties before I realized I could work for NASA and use math in such an interesting way, so I think trying to uncover opportunities without really knowing they exist was a struggle. Then a Once you have them, you don’t know someone who has had a similar experience.

“But once I got my job at NASA, I had two supervisors who supported me a lot by helping me in the job but also allowing me to broaden my scientific horizon and find opportunities .”



Holywood’s Dr Caoimhe Rooney works at NASA to help find life on other planets

Caoimhe recently participated in a science astronaut program in Florida with the IIAs and Project Possum. This has received funding from the Northern Ireland Space Office, and she hopes it could one day see her selected to go into space for science missions.

She said: “I recently participated in a science astronaut program in Florida and the Northern Ireland Space Office gave me funding to be able to do this and I am very grateful for their support.

“It’s designed to help scientists prepare for spaceflight with things like spacesuit testing, flight simulations, and aerobatic flights that help the body adapt to the experience of high Gs and Negative Gs that you would be subjected to during spaceflight.

“I haven’t been in space yet, but hopefully with the training I will be in a good position to be selected once these missions take place.

“It would most likely be for suborbital flights such as Virgin Galactic that make spaceflight easier for citizens. But some organizations want scientists to get on those flights and conduct research and experiments.”

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