Jason Wang brings years of experience in exoplanet imaging to Northwestern


Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

Wang’s expertise relates to taking images of exoplanets by removing the glare of host stars. He also utilizes data processing and software engineering, specifically as it relates to imaging exoplanets.

Pavan Acharya, Assistant Campus Editor

Physics and astronomy Prof. Jason Wang, who started teaching at Northwestern this month, didn’t always want to be an astronomer. 

As a physics major at Cornell University, Wang said he wanted to try new things in college. But it was only after completing astronomy research as an undergraduate that he realized he wanted to pursue that track.

Today, with a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, Wang is a leading expert in removing the telescopic glare of host stars to create images of exoplanets — the planets outside our solar system that orbit stars. He recently joined a team of astronomers that used the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s James Webb Space Telescope to capture a direct image of an exoplanet called HIP 65426 b.

“I think exoplanets is the coolest field because you really get to answer two kinds of questions,” Wang said. “One is ‘How do planets form and how do we get here?’ The other one is ‘Are we alone?’”

As a part of his undergraduate research at Cornell, Wang worked on data reduction pipelines for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 2.7 meter reflecting telescope that lets astronomers study the solar system from 38,000 to 45,000 feet in the air.

Wang has worked on other projects related to exoplanet imaging, like building a data cruncher for the Gemini Planet Imager at the Gemini Observatory in Chile during his time as a graduate student. The leader of the Gemini Planet Imager, Stanford University physics Prof. Bruce Macintosh, said Wang was the co-discoverer of the first planet found by the instrument.

“He’s got a really good combination of being very strong at the kind of mathematics that we use, which in our case is mostly statistics, and combined with a really excellent skill at implementing that in code,” Macintosh said. 

Wang said he is currently helping to build new instruments for the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii: the Keck Planet Imager and Characterizer and the High-resolution Infrared Spectrograph for Exoplanet Characterization. He said the instruments will measure the composition of exoplanets and will determine their makeup. 

Wang said he also plans to create more exoplanet orbit movies for his website. His pre-existing four movies compile data from the W.M. Keck Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope and Gemini Planet Imager to create a simulation of exoplanet orbits. The simulation shows a sped-up version of an orbit that would be years long in reality. 

University of Victoria Prof. Christian Marois reduced data for Wang’s movie “HR 8799.” Marois also worked with Wang during the development of the Gemini Planet Imager and the two will work together again on an upgrade to the instrument.

Marois said Wang’s strengths include brainstorming creative ideas and collaborating with other scientists.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do next,” Marois said. “I think he is definitely one of the people to follow in the field to see what new ideas he can come up with.”

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Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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