Where no Tenafly High student has gone before
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Where no Tenafly High student has gone before

Israeli with local roots interns at NASA and helps find exoplanets

Noa Yechezkel-Lubin during her summer internship with NASA.
Noa Yechezkel-Lubin during her summer internship with NASA.

Before she set out to find planets in other solar systems, Noa Yechezkel-Lubin lived in Tenafly. She was 14, and she went to Tenafly High School. Her family had moved to the town from Belgium. After a year, the Yechezkel-Lubins returned to Israel.

All that was half a lifetime ago for Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin, who now is 28. “It taught me a lot about myself and different cultures and living in different places and seeing other parts of the world,” she said.

This summer, she was back in the United States, on a three-month internship at the Ames NASA research center outside San Jose, California, helping the space agency see other parts of the galaxy. More specifically, she used cutting-edge computer science to help a brand-new satellite find planets orbiting distant stars.

To date, nearly 4,000 planets have been detected around stars as near as Proxima Centauri (four light years away) and as a distant as 27,710 light years away. At such distances — even the relatively close ones — we cannot see planets directly. But telescopes, on the ground or in space, can observe the periodic dimming of the light of the distant stars and from that extrapolate that the dimming is caused by a planet passing before its star and blocking part of its light.

Until now, the majority of the discovered planets has been spotted by the Kepler satellite, which has been finding new exoplanets, as the planets orbiting other stars are called, since 2009. As of this April, however, there is a new watcher in the sky: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, known as TESS.

TESS will watch a wider section of the sky, using stronger cameras than Kepler: In the course of two years, it is scheduled to observe 200,000 stars and is expected it to find 20,000 exoplanets. That’s five times more exoplanets than have been discovered until now. Amid those many exoplanets, “The main goal is to find 50 planet candidates that are Earth-like and could be explored in further missions to find a planet similar to ours,” Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin said.

Finding those needles in the galactic haystack would require either a whole new army of astronomers to analyze TESS’s data— or it would demand help from machines. And that’s where Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin came in. Her project for NASA was to apply deep learning methods — computer science algorithms from the field of artificial intelligence — to identify the signs of a planet in the mass of data.

The internship was funded by the Israeli Space Agency’s Asaf Ramon scholarship program, which gave a $20,000 stipend for the three-month internship.

This intersection of space science and computer science is the logical place to find Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin these days. She’s studying for a master’s degree at Bar Ilan University in data science, with a focus on natural language processing. She’s also working for an Israeli subsidiary of Amazon that makes computer microchips. This follows a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Technion.

The TESS satellite will expand knowledge about exoplanets.

And she also is a veteran rocket scientist. She worked as a satellite operator for the Israeli Defense Force, and then after her army service she worked for Israel Aerospace Industries, where she helped develop satellites.

“If you would have asked me when I was a little girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have answered ‘An astronaut!’” she said. “I always loved physics. I was very intrigued by space, and everything beyond it.”

She got to meet astronauts during a trip to Houston this summer, as part of a delegation led by Ofir Akunis, Israel’s minister of science, technology, and space. While there, she spoke to a Jewish group. And she told a story about a close encounter of a different kind.

“We as Israelis and Jews are all ambassadors of Israel,” she said. “Whether we like it or not. We will get asked questions and what we say will matter.”

She said that her mentor at NASA is an Iranian. He told her: “Noa, I am so happy I hired you. You changed my opinion about Israel.”

Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin lives in Kiryat Ono, which she says in some ways is like Tenafly. “It’s also a quiet town,” she said. “It’s pretty small. It has one high school, just like in Tenafly. Both are close to a big city” — in Kiryat Ono’s case, Tel Aviv.

“But the weather is different. It never snows here. And it’s more apartment buildings as opposed to houses.”

She has another year left before she earns her master’s degree. After that, she might continue for a doctorate — or perhaps she might go out and start a company.

“I love entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s something I really see myself doing some day. My dream is to found a company that’s space-related and artificial intelligence-related and to make it successful here in Israel.”

Meanwhile, TESS has just sent back its first set of data, the report of the brightness of stars it observed over the course of about two weeks. Next month, Ms. Yechezkel-Lubin hopes to apply the programs she developed over the summer to analyze the data.

“It’s coming pretty soon,” she said. “We hope to find some exoplanets.”

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