Lisa Kaltenegger

Associate Professor, Director of the Carl Sagan Institute


Lisa Kaltenegger is the Director of the Carl Sagan Institute to Search for Life in the Cosmos at Cornell and Associate Professor in Astronomy. She is a pioneer and world-leading expert in modeling potential habitable worlds and their detectable spectral fingerprint. Her research focuses on rocky planets circling other stars, with a focus on potentially Earth-like exoplanets in the Habitable Zone. Lisa Kaltenegger serves among others on the National Science Foundation's Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), and on NASA senior review of operating missions. She is a Science Team Member of NASA's TESS Mission as well as the NIRISS instrument on JWST.

Lisa Kaltenegger was named one of America’s Young Innovators by Smithsonian Magazine, an Innovator to Watch by TIME Magazine and was selected as one of the European Commission’s Role Models for Women in Science and Research. Among her international awards are the Invited Discourse lecture at the IAU General Assembly in Hawaii, the Heinz Meier Leibnitz Prize for Physics of Germany, the Doppler Prize for Innovation in Science of Austria, and the Barry-Jones Inauguration Award of the Royal Astrobiology Society and Open University in Britain. Her review 2017 on How to Characterize Habitable Worlds and Signs of Life was selected by Annual Reviews as part a collection celebrating pioneering women scientists.

She is part of the IMAX 3D movie "The Search for Life in Space" and gives public lectures e.g. at Aspen Ideas Festival, TED Youth, World Science Festival and the Kavli Foundation lecture at the Adler Planetarium which was live-streamed to 6 continents. Her first book "Are we alone in the universe?" has been published in German and Italian. Asteroid Kaltenegger7734 is named after her.

Research Focus

A decade of exoplanet search has led to surprising discoveries, from giant planets close to their star, to planets orbiting two stars, all the way to the first extremely hot, rocky worlds with potentially permanent lava on their surfaces due to the star’s proximity. Observation techniques have now reached the sensitivity to explore the chemical composition of the atmospheres as well as physical structure of some detected planets and find planets of less than 10 Earth masses (so called Super-Earths), among them some that may potentially be habitable.

The first confirmed transiting planets and several non-transiting planets orbit in the Habitable Zone of their host star. Observing mass and radius alone cannot break the degeneracy of a planet’s nature due to the effect of an extended atmosphere that can also block the stellar light and increase the observed planetary radius significantly. Even if a unique solution would exist, planets with similar density, like Earth and Venus, present very different planetary environments in terms of habitable conditions. Therefore, the question refocuses on atmospheric features to characterize a planetary environment. Lisa Kaltenegger’s work focuses on observational features of rocky planets in the HZ of their stars that can be used to examine if our concept of habitability is correct and how we can identify the first habitable new worlds in the sky.


SELECTED PEER-REVIEWED PUBLICATIONS (google scholar with links to all papers here)          

* Indicates graduate student and researchers in Professor Kaltenegger’s
research group

Kaltenegger, L., How to characterize a Habitable Planet, Astronomy &
Astrophysics Annual Review, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
55, 433-485, 2017

Fortin, M.A.*, Gazel, E., Kaltenegger, L., & Holycross, M.E ., Volcanic
Exoplanet Surfaces, MNRAS, 516 (3), 4569-4575, 2022

Pham, D.* & Kaltenegger, L., Follow the water: finding water, snow, and
clouds on terrestrial exoplanets with photometry and machine learning,
MNRS: Letters 513 (1), L72-L77, 2022

Coelho, L.F.*, Madden, J*., Kaltenegger, L., et al., Color Catalogue of
Life in Ice: Surface Biosignatures on Icy Worlds, Astrobiology 22 (3),
313-321, 2022

Kaltenegger, L. & Faherty, J.K., Past, present and future stars that can
see Earth as a transiting exoplanet, Nature 594 (7864), 505-507, 2021

Kaltenegger L., Lin Z.*, Rugheimer S., Finding Signs of Life on
Transiting Earthlike Planets: High-resolution Transmission Spectra of
Earth through Time around FGKM Host Stars, ApJ 904 (1), 10, 2021

Kaltenegger, L., MacDonald, R., Kozakis, T.*, Lewis, N., Mamajek, E.,
McDowell J.C. & Vanderberg, A., The White Dwarf Opportunity: Robust
Detections of Molecules in Earth-like Exoplanet Atmospheres with the
James Webb Space Telescope, ApJL, 901 (1), L1, 2020

Madden, J.* & Kaltenegger, L., 2020, High-resolution Spectra for a Wide
Range of Habitable Zone Planets around Sun-like Stars, The Astrophysical
Journal Letters 898 (2), L4

Madden, J.* & Kaltenegger, L., 2020, How planetary surfaces can shape the
climate of habitable exoplanets, Monthly Notices of the Royal
Astronomical Society 495 (1), 1-11

Kaltenegger, L. &  Traub, W.A., Transits of Earth-like planets, The
Astrophysical Journal 698 (1), 519, 370, 2009

Kaltenegger, L. & Traub, W.A. & Jucks, K.W., Spectral evolution of an Earth-like planet, The Astrophysical Journal 658 (1), 598, 293, 2007

In the news

Courses - Spring 2023