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Imagery that Moves Planets and People

A glowing dot passes behind a blackened circle and reappears on the other side. Four luminous pin pricks orbit a dark central body. These moving images are not models. They are real exoplanets: directly observed, recorded, and time-lapsed, inviting people around the world to glimpse distant solar systems and their dynamics over more than a decade—in just seconds.

“There’s just a visceral feeling of seeing this force that happens at an astrophysical scale,” said Dr. Jason Wang, an astronomer who has become known, in part, for the direct motion imagery he captures and shares online.

Dr. Jason Wang. Photo credit: Drew Bird Photography

Jason pioneered new exoplanet imaging techniques, including optical interferometry, as a 2018 51 Pegasi b Fellow and has been pushing the frontiers in this field ever since. Interferometry combines signals from multiple telescopes to pinpoint the location of planets with up to 100 times the precision of earlier methods. It’s an innovation too good not to share.

Today an assistant professor at Northwestern University, Jason’s work life is a whirlwind of course prep and teaching. He makes room for further research, in part, by engaging others.

“I have a big observational project to follow up on the orbits of all the known planets that are directly imaged at a new level of precision,” he said. Using a technique he piloted during his fellowship, one of Jason’s students is exploring how these planets formed. “It’s science we could have never done before.”

During his fellowship, Jason expanded his work in measuring the orbits of young Jupiter-like planets. He also worked with the Keck Planet Imager and Characterizer, a program supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, to better understand and document these planets’ atmospheres—all while making strides in data processing to discover new worlds.

Jason continues to develop open-source software tools to expand and empower the broader community of astronomers at work on planetary science. More recently, the Foundation supported Jason’s work to develop a Code/Astro software engineering workshop at Caltech, with additional Code/Astro workshops held at Northwestern University into 2025. The workshops seek to address the lack of formal software engineering training in typical astronomy curricula, an issue that was pointed out in the Astro2020 Decadal Survey.

“This is a technically challenging field, so there’s a high barrier to entry if you’re starting from scratch,” he said. “We write these software packages that anyone can use to study and image exoplanets.”

Jason was part of the team that made the first exoplanet image from JWST—and released the software used to do it so that others could apply it to their projects.

Unlocking the mysteries of planetary science is a “huge undertaking,” said Jason, who does his part to advance and distribute the work. In addition to sharing images and software, his endeavors in teaching software development build the capability and confidence of scientists at all stages of their careers—so they, too, can speed and strengthen their own realms of discovery.

“Open knowledge, making things accessible, these are a vital part of science,” he said. “Science is funded by the public, and it’s for public benefit.”

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