Space Place Live! with Michelle Thaller


Meet Michelle Thaller, an astronomer with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Find out what movie and what TV show first inspired Michelle to become an astronomer. You'll also learn Michelle's very favorite amazing fact about space.

Start of show

KATE: Hi, folks! Welcome to another edition of Space Place Live! I'm Kate and this is Kyo.

KYO: Hi, everybody! We have a very fun guest with us today. Her name is Michelle Thaller.

KATE: Michelle is a NASA astronomer—you know, a scientist who studies planets, stars, galaxies and other neat stuff in space. Thanks for being with us today, Michelle!

MICHELLE: Hey, it's great to be here!

KYO: What are you working on these days?

MICHELLE: I work for the Spitzer Space Telescope . . . this is the latest of NASA's big space-based observatories.

KYO: Oh, yeah, I know about the Hubble Space Telescope. But why do we need another space telescope? Can't Hubble see everything there is to see out in space?

MICHELLE: We actually see the universe entirely in infrared light. What you think of as heat light.

KATE: Heat light? I thought heat and light were two entirely different things.

MICHELLE: If you were very hot, like Let's say something was about 10,000 degrees—that's almost as hot as the Sun, right? The Sun is hot, so it's glowing in visible light. But for a human. We're much cooler. We're only about 100 degrees. But we actually give off our own kind of light. We actually glow just like a star does. It's just that instead of giving off light that your eyes can see, we give off infrared light, or body heat. And that's what Spitzer can see.

KYO: Wow! That means that Spitzer could find aliens in space!

KATE: Oh, Kyo, you give new meaning to "intelligent life."

KYO: Thanks! Uh . . . wait a minute!

KATE: So what IS Spitzer looking for, Michelle?

MICHELLE: Planets around other stars don't give off any light of their own, any visible light. But they're certainly warm. They give off heat. So if you can detect the infrared light, or the heat signal, from a distant planet around another star, that's a much better way to try to detect the planet.

KYO: See, Kate? Some of those planets could have aliens on them!

KATE: Hmmmm. Well, it would take one to know one. Maybe YOU should work for Spitzer!

KYO: I'd love to!

KATE: Hmmm. But for now we need to take a commercial break. We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

The light our eyes can see tells only a small part of the story. The Spizter Space Telescope helps us see the Universe in new ways. To learn more about Spizter, visit "Match LIGHT faces with HEAT faces!"

KYO: Welcome back. So, Michelle, what else can the Spitzer Space Telescope see?

MICHELLE: You can see through giant clouds of dust in space. You can see to where stars are actually being born inside these big dust clouds. And you can also see things like giant black holes, which I love, that are sometimes inside these giant dust clouds and hard to see. So Spitzer can see hidden things and things that are too cool to be glowing.

KYO: Oooo! I love black holes too.

KATE: That's because you live in one. Every time I loan you a book or a pencil, it disappears in your room.

KYO: It doesn't disappear! I just (STAMMERS) s-st-stra-tegically misplace it.

KATE: Oh yeah, right.

KYO: Anyway, Michelle, what would you say is your very favorite picture from the Spitzer telescope?

MICHELLE: I have to say our image of Andromeda is one of my favorites. Andromeda is the closest big galaxy to our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It's a big spiral. And in visible light, it looks sort of just like a, a nice Frisbee of stars, a disc of stars, of light. But in the infrared, you see all of these wonderful rings and structures. The spiral arms go right into the center of the galaxy. You can actually see that. It looks so different and it's so beautiful.

KATE: Wow, that's really awesome!

KYO: Yeah! So, Michelle, could you tell us and the kids watching—what is the best part of being an astronomer?

MICHELLE: I really believe that everybody in the world should be able to look at space the way we do, to know about distant planets, distant galaxies. To me, there's nothing more important than telling people what we're discovering. Why is it that we have a space program? Why is it that we are building telescopes?

KATE: I'm glad you are doing that. My Grandpa asks those kinds of questions. What would you tell him about?

MICHELLE: The amazing new things we're seeing, we're seeing things that are so far away, that the light took 13 billion years to get to us. We're seeing the universe as it was even when it was forming. We're finding planets around other stars. Maybe some of them have life. People need to know this. It changes you. It makes the world a better place. And that is the most important part of my job. And my favorite part.

KATE: I know I really like to think about things like that. I'll think some more while we take our next commercial break.

This episode of Space Place Live is brought to you by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Showing us new views of the Universe

KYO: We're back. We're talking to astronomer, Michelle Thaller. She works on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Michelle, as you may know, we love amazing facts here at The Space Place. Do you have a favorite amazing fact?

MICHELLE: I would say my favorite scientific fact is any atom larger than hydrogen or helium has to be made inside a star. I mean, literally, what that means , like in your body, there's carbon, and there's iron, and there's oxygen, all of those atoms were made inside the belly of a giant star that died long ago and exploded. We are so connected with space. It's not something distant. It's something right in your body. And I love that.

KATE: I believe the astronomer Carl Sagan said "We are star stuff." Didn't he do a TV show about the stars a long time ago?

MICHELLE: I was a kid about 10 years old when this show Cosmos came out and Carl just blew me away. I mean I had a picture of him in my locker in middle school. I had this big crush on Carl Sagan. I just thought he was amazing.

KYO: So was it Carl Sagan who first made you want to be an astronomer?

MICHELLE: Wanting to be an astronomer probably stems from seeing Star Wars when I was a kid, I was about seven years old, when the very first Star Wars came out, and I just came out of that theatre thinking I have to do something to do with space. I've gotta make that my life. I just love that. The way it just completely blew up my imagination.

KYO: Wow, I'll tell that story to my Mom next time she says movies are a waste of time! Well, speaking of time, we're all out of it. Thanks again for talking to us today, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Hey, it was great being on the show.

KYO: And thanks for watching Space Place Live! See you all next time.

End of show