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An Interview With an Astronomer

Dr. Lisa Will

Dr. Lisa Will is the Fleet’s Resident Astronomer. She is also an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the Department of Physical Sciences at San Diego City College. Dr. Will hosts our popular monthly live planetarium show, The Sky Tonight. She sat down to talk with Nathan Young about the upcoming show; the current film, Hidden Universe; and upcoming astronomical events.

Why did you decide to become an astronomer?
I was influenced by things like Star Trek at a very young age. I've always found space to be beautiful.

What continues to capture your fascination about astronomy?
The views of Earth from the International Space Station are really amazing. There's also the incredibly Earth-like appeal of Mars. It almost looks like the American Southwest in some pictures.

One of the things that I see in my students is that they're always surprised how much we can learn about space even though we're on this tiny little planet. The diversity of moons in the solar system is just amazing. It shows you that not every world is Earth-like. And the moons of the solar system are the obvious places to look for life in our solar system outside of Earth.

Why the moons?
There are a couple of moons that seem to have liquid water and sub-surface oceans. Life, as we know it, is dependent on water, so we look for liquid water as a potential precondition of life.

What do you focus on in your own astronomical work?
When I was doing research, I focused on the material between the stars, particularly the dust between the stars. Now with my teaching, I focus on bringing the beauty of astronomy to a more general audience and emphasizing that we can all participate in and understand science. Astronomy is fun to teach because people already come in engaged. They already have ideas from looking up into the sky at night.

What captured your attention in the IMAX film, Hidden Universe?
For me, the best part was that they showed Mars. There's a particular spacecraft they showed orbiting Mars called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a camera called “HiRISE” that can take photos of the surface of Mars and see things as small as a foot across. It's getting incredible images! And not nearly enough love, since all the attention is on the Rover. The Rover deserves the attention, but sometimes the media doesn't pick up these amazing images of Mars the way they should. There are some great shots in the movie from this spacecraft.

What will you be talking about for The Sky Tonight in August?
The Sky Tonight show this month will be about the Mars Curiosity Rover. It’s been two years since it landed on Mars, and I want to highlight its discoveries and the beautiful images of the surface of Mars that Curiosity has been sending back to us.

Are there any big upcoming astronomical events we should be on the lookout for?
The year’s most prominent meteor shower is the Perseids, peaking August 11–12. There's a total lunar eclipse that is going to be happening on October 8 too.

What about stuff we might not know will be happening?
There's always stuff that might happen. We live in a cosmic shooting gallery, so to speak, so anything can happen.