JPL's Mark Swain: Expert on Exoplanets and Espresso

Mark Swain Mark Swain and his espresso machine. Image credit: NASA/JPL
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March 19, 2008

Coffee is one of the tools that Mark Swain, a JPL research scientist, uses to stay sharp when he studies exoplanets, or planets around other stars.

In fact, Swain is such a serious coffee connoisseur, he has hiked into the jungle-like terrain of Hawaii to pick the coffee fruit, dry it and prepare it into espresso by hand. A corner kitchenette of the JPL Material Sciences building holds a large orange espresso machine that he bought in a "heated bidding war on eBay."

"I put a bid on this vintage espresso machine about a week in advance," Swain said. "I almost lost it in the final minute to last-minute bidders."

The espresso machine had to be completely taken apart for shipping, which meant Swain had to re-assemble it from a big heap of parts.

"I didn't have any pictures or instructions to work with, but I managed it," Swain said. Now, the espresso machine has become a JPL institution as the center of the Material Science building's "Coffee Club."

Swain says that whether it's an espresso maker or an astronomy instrument, knowing how something works is the key to putting all the parts together. The same principle goes for his research: astronomers need to know how their instruments work in order to fully understand exoplanets.

"For a lot of astronomy research, you don't have to know the details of how the instrument operates, you just need the data it's giving you," Swain said. "On the other hand, it's valuable to understand the instrument you're using when you're trying to study exoplanets." The existence of exoplanets, located beyond our solar system, was scientifically confirmed in the mid ‘90s – usually, the faint light emitted from these planets is overwhelmed by the bright light from the star that they orbit. In fact, much of exoplanet research includes discovering and improving ways to actually find them.

The study of exoplanets is a hot field in astronomy right now, with 277 or so already discovered as of March. Along with detecting exoplanets, scientists have been characterizing the atmosphere of bright exoplanets. For the first time ever, a team including Swain has detected the presence of the organic molecule, methane, in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a nearby star. The team used the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Locating organic molecules might be the first step to eventually finding extraterrestrial life - a challenging enterprise, but then again, Swain says that he likes tackling tough topics.

"I've always liked solving hard problems," Swain said. "I've been into the sciences ever since I was a kid - I was the one who would build lasers and took part in every school science fair."

A self-proclaimed science geek, Swain says that what he does now is just a continuation from back then.

"My interest in exoplanet study started at JPL," Swain said. "It's a tough and exciting question, just the kind I like working on."

There's plenty of work to be done on exoplanets, but Swain is fully prepared with an arsenal of fresh espresso.

Contact: Diya Chacko/JPL
818-393-5464