About Dr. Millar-Blanchaer

Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer is an assistant professor in the Physics department, working in observational and experimental astronomy. He is from Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and received his B.S. in Physics and B.A.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Queen’s University and his PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics from the University of Toronto.  He started working at UCSB in 2020.

What do you like about Physics at UCSB?

I like being in a large department with lots of exciting research going on. The campus also provides easy access to the outdoors: the mountains and the ocean are both right there!

How and why did you get into your area of research?

Working in observational and experimental astronomy is a perfect combination of my technical and scientific interests and builds upon my background in both engineering and physics. As a big fan of science fiction, I find the idea of discovering and characterizing new exoplanets very exciting.

What is your research?

My research focuses on the discovery and characterization of exoplanetary systems. I do this both through the observation of exoplanetary systems, and the development of new techniques and instruments (i.e., cameras for telescopes) that can aid in future observations. In general, my work lies in the field of high-resolution, “high-contrast imaging”, where we work to image very faint things (planets and disks) very close by to very bright things (stars). The planets and disks that we’re interested in are at best 10,000 times fainter than their host stars. 

My observational work focuses on observations of circumstellar disks, and exoplanet and brown dwarf atmospheres. Brown dwarfs represent the connection between exoplanets and stars, as they are not quite massive enough to burn hydrogen in their cores, like most stars, but they are more massive than most planets. Some brown dwarfs have very similar physical characteristics (e.g., mass, radius, etc.) to exoplanets. By studying brown dwarf atmospheres we can learn about chemical and other atmospheric processes (for example, winds and jets like we see on Jupiter) that also happen in exoplanet atmospheres. Because brown dwarfs are free-floating objects without a nearby host star, we can study them more easily than exoplanets.

I am currently leading a polarimetry upgrade of the near-infrared NIRC2 instrument at the Keck telescope. This work will not only enable new polarimetric observations of brown dwarfs, but new circumstellar disks (notably, disks that are too faint for Gemini Planet Imager, with which I am also involved), solar system observations, new observations of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy (related work won the 2020 Nobel prize in physics), and more. I am currently focused on developing a new visible-light polarimetric camera that would be one day deployed at the Keck telescope to study new circumstellar disks that are too close to their star to see with GPI or NIRC2. This new project is very exciting because these types of high-contrast observations in the visible light regime are typically challenging due to blurring of the images by Earth’s atmosphere. This new camera will take advantage of new technologies such as cameras that read out at 1kHz speeds and other new technology upgrades at the Keck telescope. This new camera is also very exciting in the context of an aging Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which is currently the main telescope used by astronomers for high-resolution visible-light observations. Although it would not replace the full suite of capabilities of HST, it would be about to outperform it in some regimes. In the coming year, I will also use the James Webb Space Telescope to image disks at wavelengths inaccessible from the ground. 

In summary, I make significant contributions to the exoplanet field, by carrying out new observations, pushing the development of polarimetric data analysis techniques, and by building instruments and developing new technologies that are used by myself and others for new cutting-edge observations.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

There are many aspects of my research that I find rewarding. I love working together in teams and seeing the combined results that come together from a lot of people putting in their own efforts. I also really enjoy the day-to-day work of designing experiments, data analysis, and seeing the results.

What do you like to do outside of physics?

I like to bake, hike with my dog, bike ride, play capoeira, and read/watch SciFi.