A brown dwarf is an astronomical object that is not large enough to become a star, but also too large to be classified as a planet. Most brown dwarfs are a little bigger than Jupiter, but have much more mass. In 1994, a team at California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory used coronagraphy to discover Gliese 299B, a brown dwarf in the constellation Lepus. One member of that team was Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer, a curator of the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.
Oppenheimer earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from Columbia University and her Ph.D in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1999. She then worked at the USC Berkley on a Hubble Space Telescope research fellowship. She specializes in exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars other than our own sun along with her work with brown dwarfs and the remnants of stars known as white dwarfs.
Through her work with the Rose Center for Earth and Space, she and her team deploy telescopes and astronomical instruments to study nearby solar systems. Because stars produce so much light, they often obscure the other objects around them. But using systems like coronagraphy, the light of the star is filtered out so that those objects are visible to instruments like the Lyot Project, which was deployed in 2004 and at the time was the world’s most sensitive coronagraph. Four years later, the team deployed Project 1640, the first research project to “conduct a reconnaissance of all the known planets in another planetary system.” Oppenheimer serves as the instrument and survey principal investigator.
Oppenheimer has been a visiting scientist at Cambridge University, an adjunct professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, and has published over 100 papers. She is the curator in charge of the Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe, a 3-D atlas of the known universe. Dr. Oppenheimer and her team continue to work on new techniques and technologies for exploring the world beyond our solar system.
Written by Mary Ratliff