From hosting star parties at TCNJ to exploring exoplanets at NASA, Knicole Colon knows what’s up.

Ask Knicole Colon ’07 if Pluto is a planet and she says, bluntly, no — even though many non-astronomers and some scientists still hope to reinstate the planet’s status. “There’s a lot of stuff in the solar system, and astronomers keep discovering objects that are similar to Pluto,” she says. But Colon holds firm: Pluto is smaller than the eight major planets and has a unique oval-shaped orbit around the sun. This, she says, is why it is rightfully classified as a dwarf planet.

She would know: Colon is a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she supports the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope missions. She’s also part of the International Astronomical Union, which voted to demote Pluto, and if another such case came about, she’d have a say.

The TESS project searches for exoplanets, which are planets orbiting stars in other solar systems. Researchers track when stars dim, which indicates that a planet may be passing by. Colon helps other research groups use that information to measure the mass of objects that could be exoplanets and figure out if they are likely to have an atmosphere similar to Earth.

Where TESS is a “wide and shallow survey of the sky,” the James Webb Space Telescope will get specific. Set to launch on October 31, 2021, the James Webb is nearly three times as powerful as the Hubble Telescope. It will look at targets identified by TESS using infrared light “to look for absorption of molecules like carbon dioxide and water, all of the basic building blocks of life,” Colon says.

“The more we know about what these exoplanets are made of, the more we can figure out where or how they formed,” she says. “The goal isn’t to find E.T. but to learn about us. It’s really a matter of understanding how we got here.”

Colon found her way to the skies through the silver screen. When she was 12 years old, she saw Independence Day, the 1996 blockbuster about an unlikely group of heroes who save the world from aliens.

“I wanted to pause the movie and see more of the ship,” she says. The next year, she saw Contact, an adaptation of a Carl Sagan book, in which Jodi Foster is a scientist chosen to make contact with extraterrestrial life. “I was like the protagonist, Ellie. I wanted to know more.”

So her father bought her a telescope. “He would wake me up in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers,” she says.

Colon came to TCNJ to study physics, and co-founded the astronomy club, which set up “star parties” where they’d bring out telescopes that anyone could use. “It’s been a journey,” she says.

Photo: Mike Morgan

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