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“There is No Planet B”: Planet Hunter Debra Fischer’s Mission To Save Earth

headshot of Debra Fischer
Debra Fischer, Ph.D. Photo credit: Dan Renzetti.

Debra Fischer, Ph.D., has discovered hundreds of planets in the complex fabric of our cosmos — and yet, she says, there is no plausible Planet B.

The closest habitable planet lies a whopping 24 trillion miles away, and with no means to get there, Earth is our only option.

Two and a half years ago, the award-winning planet hunter, AAAS Fellow, and Director of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) was wrapping up work on an instrument that astronomers would later use to hunt for exoplanets. Unearthing celestial bodies in the farthest reaches of human-observed space had been her calling for decades, but she was becoming increasingly concerned about the goings-on within Earth’s atmosphere.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Wait, does what we’re doing even matter,’” says Fischer, “when the world is in such a crisis state right now in terms of climate?”

In late 2019, the astronomer co-founded Astronomers for Planet Earth, a grass-roots movement of people working in, studying, or enamored with astronomy who address the climate crisis from an astronomical perspective. Nearly 1,500 astronomers from 75 countries have joined forces to teach the next generation about the impact of climate change and amplify the voices of climate scientists.

Fischer says that astronomers are uniquely positioned to help atmospheric scientists fight climate change for two reasons. The first is that climate science is science that astronomers understand — after all, they apply the equivalent of global climate models used on Earth to the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. The second is that they are not climate scientists.

“If we were climate scientists, we could be accused of promoting this idea because we’re getting funding for it,” says Fischer. “But there's no conflict of interest, and yet, we are exactly the scientists who can understand what's going on.”

The planet hunter’s passion for environmental advocacy carries over into her work at the NSF, an independent agency that works towards scientific advancement. In fact, her interest in climate action is part of the reason why she accepted the position. Fischer had read an article in Nature Astronomy that calculated the carbon footprint of astronomy work. Its conclusion? That astronomers were emitting an extra 20 to 30 tons of carbon every year just by participating in research.

“One of the first things I did when I came into this position was reach out to the directors of all the observatories and ask them about their energy consumption,” says Fischer.

Her efforts proved fruitful. Not only has she collected carbon emissions data from observatories across the country, but in the next year, she is looking forward to “announcing the first completely carbon neutral observatory.”

It’s a dream come true for the planet hunter who, as a kid, grew up fascinated by the world of science fiction. When she pictured her future, young Fischer imagined herself pouring smoking vials filled with dangerous fluids into laboratory beakers, whipping up scientific concoctions that would change the world. 

Upon graduating high school, she enrolled in a nursing program at the University of Iowa. Nursing brought the astronomer one step closer to fulfilling her dream of a career in science, but the work was not exactly what she had hoped for. She decided to go back to school to prepare for a career in medicine.

As part of her curriculum, Fischer was taking courses in math, physics, and astronomy. She found herself dazzled by differential equations and theories of extraterrestrial life. Instead of predetermining her destiny, Fischer decided to let the chips fall where they may. The stars aligned when she earned her master’s degree in astronomy from San Francisco State University.

It was while working towards her doctorate in astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz that Fischer dove into the realm of planet hunting, searching for exoplanets by measuring Doppler shifts, or changes in light waves, in the spectra of stars. The technique allowed the planet hunter to discover hundreds of extrasolar planets, and in 1999, she made an incredibly discovery — the first known multiple planet system.

A decade later, the scientist became a professor in the Department of Astronomy at Yale, drawn to the university by its strong female leadership not only in science but in her field as well.

Over the course of her career, Fischer has earned numerous accolades for her contributions to the field of astronomy and science on the whole. She is a former Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies and Cecilia Payne Gaposhkin Lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2012, Fischer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Later in 2021, she was elected to the National Academy of Science. Earlier this year, she was elected a AAAS Fellow for her achievements in the discovery of exoplanets. 

Fischer sees the present as a time of opportunity for tackling one of the most pressing challenges of our time — Earth’s changing climate.

“It's really amazing to be in a position where you can you know what’s coming and you have the opportunity to do something about it,” says Fischer.

The question is whether humanity will act before it is too late.

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