Explorer of the Week: Knicole Colón

In 2011, astronomer Knicole Colón received a Young Explorers grant to examine “hot-Jupiters,” Jupiter-size, gas giant planets orbiting close to their host stars, and “super-Earths,” rocky planets about ten times larger then Earth.

What project are you working on now?
Being an astronomer, I’m currently analyzing data from the 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias. Specifically, I used this telescope to observe the transits of giant extrasolar planets that are about the same size of Jupiter. I am looking for excess absorption due to potassium in the planet’s atmosphere, which is predicted by exoplanet atmosphere models. The excess absorption manifests itself as a deeper transit at the wavelength where potassium absorbs.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
I’ve only had a few experiences in the field, as most of my data is acquired through a “queue” observing process that is sent to me during the night. I would say my favorite experience was the first time I laid eyes on the enormous 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias, which is the heart and soul of my Ph.D. work. I basically looked at it in awe and understood for the first time how lucky I was to have access to such a powerful telescope. There have been different challenges throughout my fieldwork, but the most challenging is traveling to and being at the observatories! They are located on remote mountaintops—as they should be—so you have to take many planes and crazy roads to get there. While you are up there, you can feel very tiny, as though you are all alone in the world. Compared to that, technical challenges can seem easy.

Picture of Colón stands on the Gran Telescopio Canarias balcony overlooking the Island of La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
Colón stands on the Gran Telescopio Canarias balcony overlooking the Island of La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain, Photograph courtesy Knicole Cólon

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
I don’t think I could pick just one! Every explorer does something fascinating. I always wanted to be a scientist, so I think I would honestly enjoy switching places with any archaeologist, zoologist, or really any of the National Geographic explorers!

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Hopefully explorers will physically be on other planets in the solar system, not just studying them from Earth!

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I don’t think it’s really a surprise, but I’ve learned that almost nothing ever goes as planned. That can be a good thing though.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
The first time I traveled to Europe by myself. I was in France for a workshop and had to take a train and then a bus to get to the workshop location, but I couldn’t find the bus stop. Thankfully, I was eventually able to find someone on the street who pointed me in the right direction!

Picture of the Gran Telescopio de Canarias at sunset.
The Gran Telescopio de Canarias at sunset. Photograph by Tino Soriano

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I was born in California, and when I lived there I would often “listen” for earthquakes by lying on the floor and putting my ear to the ground. Considering that I wasn’t even five years old at the time, my family pretty much knew I was destined to be a scientist! Over the years, my interests evolved from meteorology—I wanted to be a tornado chaser—to archaeology—I wanted to look for mummies—nd eventually settled on astronomy after seeing the movie Contact with Jodie Foster. My dad encouraged my interest in astronomy, and I would say I was about 12 years old when I officially decided that I wanted to be an astronomer.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
Definitely some type of dinosaur! The dinosaur fossils that have been discovered are amazing and intriguing, and I think we’d learn so much having a live dinosaur to study. Although, it’d probably be a good idea to bring back an herbivore, rather than a carnivore!



Meet the Author
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.