“We’re really trying to mold the starlight around an exoplanet—not just suppress it—in a way that allows us to accurately sense, measure, and analyze what’s out there. Until recently, being able to interact with this light was an afterthought.”

Emiel Por, ph.d.

Although today’s telescopes mostly detect distant exoplanets from quirks in the light of their host stars, our ability to see them directly has yet to reach its theoretical limits. By designing specialized instruments, Emiel Por, Ph.D., is pushing observational power ahead to reveal the secrets of smaller exoplanets once inundated by starlight.

He invented two coronagraphs, instruments that carefully suppress starlight, to reveal much fainter planets and their atmospheric compositions—including intriguing biomarkers. Dr. Por’s inventions integrate systems that manipulate light to make real-time corrections for atmospheric turbulence, allowing for much sharper image quality. To model these optical effects, Dr. Por developed a versatile software package that has since become a global standard.

He also led a study group to classify the performance of coronagraphs around the world and guide telescope design for NASA’s upcoming Habitable Worlds Observatory, which promises to be the next premier space telescope.

During his fellowship, Dr. Por will apply his expertise to enhance the SCALES spectrograph at W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawai’i, enabling higher-contrast imaging of planets closer to their stars. He will also develop a coronagraph that combines his earlier innovations with technologies that replace bulky, less-stable optical equipment with a compact photonic chip. He will prototype this technique on the Santa Cruz Extreme AO Lab (SEAL) testbed and the Shane Adaptive Optics system at San Jose’s Lick Observatory—defying limitations and defining new possibilities in planetary science.

Dr. Por received a Ph.D. in astronomy and instrumentation from Leiden University in Fall 2020. Prior to starting his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, Dr. Por will continue his work as a NASA Hubble Fellowship Sagan fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute.