Autobiography of William J Borucki
I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1939 to Steven and Anna Borucki. When I was two years old, we moved to Delavan Wisconsin where I grew up enjoying starry skies, the freedom to build things, and a great nearby library. As a boy, I built model airplanes, launched homemade rockets, built radios, and became a radio amateur. My brother and friends were interested in astronomy. We sometimes visited nearby Yerkes Observatory to look at Mars through its giant refractor.
My graduate and undergraduate studies were conducted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After receiving a BSc and MSc degrees in physics in 1960 and 1962, I joined the Hypersonic Free Flight Branch at the NASA Ames Research Center in California to participate in the great race to the Moon.
At Ames I helped develop the heat shield for the Apollo missions to the Moon. From 1962 through 1972, I conducted laboratory and theoretical studies of the radiation and plasma environments of entry vehicles. During this period, I developed spectroscopic instrumentation to determine the plasma properties of hypervelocity shock waves. The use of a large grating and a state-of-the-art reconnaissance lens allowed the derivation of the state properties of plasmas to be derived from line broadening and intensity ratios of atomic lines with only a 200 nanosecond exposure.
After the successful Moon landings, I transferred to the Theoretical Studies Branch where I developed mathematical models of the Earth’s stratosphere to predict the effects of nitric oxides and chlorofluoromethanes on the ozone layer. I also used the opportunity to investigate the effects of lightning activity in the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, and Jupiter. I also conducted laboratory measurements and developed instrumentation to determine the optical efficiency of lightning in each type of atmosphere and used these in conjunction with spacecraft observations to deduce the lightning-energy available to produce molecular species. At the invitation of the Principal Investigator for the Huygens-Cassini Mission to Saturn and Titan, I was appointed a co-investigator on the Atmospheric Structure Experiment carried by the Huygens entry probe. During this period I found time to earn a MSc degree in meteorology from San Jose State University.
In 1983, I began advocating the development of a space mission that could detect Earth-size planets and determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars. My first paper (1984) showed that a space-based photometer should be able to detect Earth-size planets if a photometer could be developed that was a 1000 times more precise than any previous photometer and if it could observe tens of thousands of stars simultaneously. The second paper showed that all stars must be regarded as variable at the precision required to detect Earth-size planets. In the succeeding years I visited observatories to determine the capabilities of their photometers and what processes limited the precision of their photometry. I also held workshops to investigate the most promising approaches to building a photometer with the required precision. In conjunction with scientists at the National Institute of Science and Technology, several multi-channel photometers were built and tested. Tests of CCD detectors proved that they had the necessary precision if the systematic errors were measured and corrected. To demonstrate that high precision, automated photometry of thousands of stars could be done simultaneously, my team built an automated photometric telescope and installed it at a small, unused dome at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California. Nightly observations were radio-linked to Ames where a data analysis pipe-line was developed to do automated photometry. Science team members analyzed the results and conducted follow-up observations at other ground-based telescopes; just as they would do in the future for the Kepler Mission results.
To complete the demonstration that the technology needed to accomplish the detection of Earth-sized transits was sufficiently mature to start the development of a space mission, a $1M end-to-end simulation testbed was built. It used currently-available CCD detectors (not those imagined to exist in the future), vibrated a miniature telescope at the frequencies that the actual instrument would experience when in orbit, and demonstrated the detection of 80 part-per-million transits associated with Earth-size transits. The demonstrations showed that appropriate detectors existed and that a photometer could be built that monitored many thousands of stars simultaneously with the precision to detect Earth-size planets. In 2001, my proposal to the NASA Discovery Program for the Kepler Mission was competitively selected from a group of 26 proposals for funding and I was appointed its Principal Investigator. During the four years of its operation, the Kepler Mission discovered over 4,600 planetary candidates, confirmed more than 1000 as planets, and made numerous contributions to stellar astrophysics, especially with respect to asteroseismic investigations of evolving stars. Worldwide, over 1,000 scientists are involved in analyzing, interpreting, and publishing the Mission results. Currently I am doing research on exoplanets at the Ames Research Center as an Ames Associate.
24 September 2015 Hong Kong