Maggie Turnbull was a full-time astronomer with the Hubble Space Telescope team in 2007 when she got an offer she couldn’t refuse: the chance to consult for NASA’s New Worlds Observer, joining the search for habitable planets in other solar systems. Today she has refashioned herself as an independent astrobiologist based in the backcountry of Wisconsin.
Ok, so what exactly does an astrobiologist do?
Astrobiologists like me study the stars and surrounding planets looking for signs of life. Unfortunately, we don’t actually travel there—we use remote sensing.
Why would somebody hire a freelance astrobiologist?
They get exactly what they pay for and don’t have to support someone with an office. With the New Worlds Observer, I’m helping NASA look for Earth-like planets and signs of life on them. At Arizona State University I’ll be looking at how planets might form in the interstellar medium [between stars].
If money were no object, what would your dream project be?
I would love to visit another planet for real and look for life. I’ve watched documentaries of astronauts going to the moon. It’s so desolate there, with just dust, rocks, and darkness. But when they left the moon they had a longing to go back—they had somehow made a connection to that landscape. I feel that connection when I go on expeditions to the desert or polar regions or just up to the telescope, far from civilization.
Let’s cut to the chase. How close are you to finding E.T.?
I used to believe alien civilizations were all over the place but we just weren’t listening. Now I don’t think we’ll run into humanoid-like creatures in every planetary system. Civilizations like ours might be quite rare, although life and intelligence can be expressed in many ways that might take us a while to get our minds around when we find them. I still have fantasies about being contacted by an alien civilization. But as for making contact with other kinds of alien animals, we might need to use different tactics.
What do you do for fun in Antigo, Wisconsin, population 8,500?
I would drop everything to see Madonna if she came to town.