UNION, NJ – A graduate of Union High School, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, was among scientists who helped NASA find the first exoplanet, about 100 light years away that looks a lot like Earth.
Dr. Joey Rodriguez, a 2006 Union High School graduate, led a team that has discovered an Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, and have said it’s one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star's habitable zone so far.
Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, works on NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, surveying the entire sky designed to discover thousands of planets around the nearest stars to our own Sun (“exoplanets”), targets well-suited for detailed future studies. He said most of his work (and astronomy in general) is centered on computer programing and image analysis. “My research focuses on trying to understand how planets form and evolve, and what impact that may have on the possibility of forming life. Specifically, why is the architecture of our solar system so different from the thousands of planetary systems we have discovered around other stars.” He said he also advises students on research projects using data from the TESS mission.
TOI 700 is a small, star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 20 percent larger than the Earth and about 40 percent of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature.
“Given the impact of this discovery — that it is TESS’s first habitable-zone Earth-size planet — we really wanted our understanding of this system to be as concrete as possible,” Rodriguez said. “Spitzer (a NASA space telescope) saw TOI 700 d transit exactly when we expected it to. It’s a great addition to the legacy of a mission that helped confirm two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and identify five more.”
Before discovering new planets, Rodriguez attended Union High School, Rodriguez where he played varsity football, was on the varsity bowling team, and a member of the golf team. “High school was a great experience but I definitely wasn’t a great student,” he said. “During high school, I was focused more on extracurricular activities (sports and music) than I was on academics.” Rodriguez said while he did well in high school, his lack of focus and drive limited his preparation for college. He said he did not take Honors or AP courses, “which resulted in me having to work harder in college”.
Rodriguez said until his senior year in high school he hadn’t had many opportunities to learn about astrophysics or what careers were possible. But two of his favorite courses were College Electronics and Astronomy. He said the electronics course began with an introduction to hobby electronics his freshman year and then College Electronics I, II, and III the following three years. Rodriguez said he found the electronics courses very interesting, and was thinking about pursuing a career in electrical engineering before his senior year. It was during his senior year, he said, that he became interested in Astrophysics as a career when he took Physics and a one semester Astronomy course.
“I had always been fascinated with the night sky ever since I was a kid,” Rodriguez recalled. “I was always interested in science and space. I remember going camping while I was in the Boy Scouts (Troop 80 in Cranford) and just being mesmerized by the night sky and the vastness of space.” He said during his senior year he had a one semester course on Astronomy (the second semester was Oceanography). “I truly enjoyed the class in every way. It was that class which demonstrated to me that I could pursue a career in astronomy, so I applied to Rutgers University with the intention of pursuing an Astrophysics major.” Rodriguez received a Bachelor’s of Science degree, with majors in Astrophysics and Psychology, from Rutgers in 2010.
After graduating from Rutgers, Rodriguez began a PhD program at George Mason University in the summer of 2010. During that time, he worked studying dust around young stars and what that could mean in terms of forming planets. He received a Master of Science degree in Applied and Engineering Physics in 2012. Departmental budget cuts led Rodriguez to transfer to Vanderbilt University. “While this was one of the toughest times of my life, it was one of the best things to happen to me,” he said. “The entire situation led to realizing how important astronomy and getting my doctorate was to me. I also realized how fortunate I was to get another opportunity at Vanderbilt.”
At Vanderbilt, Rodriguez began working on a small project called the “Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope” or “KELT” survey, designed to discover new planets around other stars, a science topic that became the focus of his doctoral dissertation, and later his career. He said after he defended his dissertation in 2016, he was offered a postdoctoral fellowship called the “Future Faculty Leaders” at Harvard University working at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. In the summer of 2019, he was offered a new staff scientist position at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory while still working at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Rodriguez’s parents, Joe and Jeannie, still live in Union. Joe Rodriguez works for the Hillside Board of Education as a security guard and Jeannie is a Labor and Delivery Nurse at JFK Hospital. Rodriguez has an older sister, Jennifer, who works as a forensics scientist focused on latent fingerprint analysis for a sheriff’s department in Florida.
About growing up in Union Rodriguez said, “where you grew up and who you grew up with has a huge influence on who you become as a person. I am very fortunate to have an amazing family who has supported me in various ways.” He said some of his closest friends (including his best friend Charles Sansone) are people he grew up and went to school with in Union. “All of these people have helped me to become the person I am today, which is directly related to any success I have had.”
Rodriguez said his hope is to become a professor or permanent staff scientist which would allow him to provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to conduct cutting edge research in studying extra-solar planets. “Being an astrophysicist is a dream job for me, and I am incredibly fortunate to enjoy my job as much as I do,” said Rodriguez. He said he has been able to travel the world, visiting South Africa, Chile, and Australia, to name a few. “That’s something I never really saw myself doing,” he added.
“As per science,” Rodriguez said, “we are actually making strides to answering the biggest question in science, ‘Are we alone?’”. He said while researchers are no closer to answering this, they are beginning to address this question scientifically, searching for evidence of life on other planets/moons in the solar system and discovering planets that are similar in size to Earth in the habitable zone (where the temperature of the planet would be just right so that liquid water could exist on its surface). “We still have a lot to learn, and I look forward to seeing or even being a part of some of those amazing scientific discoveries yet to come,” Rodriguez added.
Rodriguez currently lives in Boston with his fiancé, Swata, whom he met at Rutgers in 2009. “We’ve been together for more than 10 years and are getting married in March of next year.,” he said. Swata is currently in school finishing her masters in Nursing, and works as a home health care nurse in Boston. Their adopted dog, Jules, has become a big part of their lives, he added.
“One clear thing that ties my career back to Union is taking that Astronomy class my senior year which made me realize that all of this was a possibility,” said Rodriguez. “Who knows what I would have ended up doing if it wasn’t for that class.”