Department of Astronomy Center for Radiophysics & Space Research

Lisa Kaltenegger

Associate Professor of Astronomy, Director of the Carl Sagan Institute
Lisa  Kaltenegger

Lisa Kaltenegger is the Director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell and Associate Professor in Astronomy. Her research focuses on exploring new worlds orbiting other stars, especially rocky planets and super-Earths and their atmospheres in the habitable zone. She is a world-leading expert in modeling potential habitable worlds and their detectable spectral fingerprint, which can be detected with the next generation of telescopes. Lisa Kaltenegger serves among others on the National Science Foundation's Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), and on NASA senior review of operating missions. She is a Science Team Member of NASA's TESS Mission as well as the NIRISS instrument on JWST

Lisa Kaltenegger was named one of America’s Young Innovators by Smithsonian Magazine, an Innovator to Watch by TIME Magazine and was selected as one of the European Commission’s Role Models for Women in Science and Research. Among her international awards are the Invited Discourse lecture at the IAU General Assembly in Hawaii, the Heinz Meier Leibnitz Prize for Physics of Germany, the Doppler Prize for Innovation in Science of Austria, and the Barry-Jones Inauguration Award of the Royal Astrobiology Society and Open University in Britain. Her review 2017 on How to Characterize Habitable Worlds and Signs of Life was selected by Annual Reviews as part a collection celebrating pioneering women scientists.

She is part of the IMAX 3D movie "The Search for Life in Space" and gives public lectures e.g. at Aspen Ideas Festival, TED Youth, World Science Festival and the Kavli Foundation lecture at the Adler Planetarium which was live-streamed to 6 continents. Her first book "Are we alone in the universe?" has been published in German and ItalianAsteroid Kaltenegger7734 is named after her.

Research

A decade of exoplanet search has led to surprising discoveries, from giant planets close to their star, to planets orbiting two stars, all the way to the first extremely hot, rocky worlds with potentially permanent lava on their surfaces due to the star’s proximity. Observation techniques have now reached the sensitivity to explore the chemical composition of the atmospheres as well as physical structure of some detected planets and find planets of less than 10 Earth masses (so called Super-Earths), among them some that may potentially be habitable.

The first confirmed transiting planets and several non-transiting planets orbit in the Habitable Zone of their host star. Observing mass and radius alone can not break the degeneracy of a planet’s nature due to the effect of an extended atmosphere that can also block the stellar light and increase the observed planetary radius significantly. Even if a unique solution would exist, planets with similar density, like Earth and Venus, present very different planetary environments in terms of habitable conditions. Therefore the question refocuses on atmospheric features to characterize a planetary environment. Lisa Kaltenegger’s work focuses on observational features of rocky planets in the HZ of their stars that can be used to examine if our concept of habitability is correct and how we can identify the first habitable new worlds in the sky.