The Life of a Planet Hunter - NBC Bay Area

The Life of a Planet Hunter



    Astronomer Steve Vogt looks for cosmic neighbors from the highest peak in the Bay Area. (Published Wednesday, May 11, 2011)

    You know those mysterious white domes up in the mountains east of San Jose? That's where astronomer Steve Vogt searches for planets at night.

    James Lick Observatory is perched atop Mount Hamilton, the highest peak in the entire Bay Area (4,196 feet). It's home to some of the most powerful telescopes in the world, including the Shane 120-inch Reflector, one of Vogt's favorites.

    "It's of the most fundamental importance that we figure out whether or not we are alone in this universe," Vogt said.

    Vogt has been studying the cosmos for 40 years. He's a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and for the last 15 years, he's been on the hunt for habitable planets around stars.

    In 2010, Vogt's team announced the discovery of the holy grail: an earth-like planet in a habitable zone. It's just 20 light-years from Earth and it's a place Vogt thinks could harbor life, with liquid water on its surface and everything.

    It's officially called Gliese 581 g, which is kind of boring, so Vogt unofficially named it after his wife, Zarmina. Since then, all kinds of crazy blogs and products with the name "Zarmina's World" have popped up.

    "There are people selling land on Zarmina's World, for what that's worth," he said.

    After someone makes a claim like this, the normal approach is for science to try to tear it apart. So lately, Vogt has been spending most of his time trying to confirm the detection.

    The job takes a lot of mathematics, physics and studying, but Vogt knew he wanted to be an astronomer when he was just 17 years old.

    It's the only job he's ever had and he thinks "it's a fascinating career."

    Lick Observatory offers free public tours if you're willing to brave the hour long drive up 19 miles of windy road.

    You can also see an artist's rendering of Zarmina's World here. Lynette Cook worked directly with Vogt to create the image.