Back in 2002, in his first year as a graduate student at Ohio State University, Joshua Pepper was sitting in his office one day when a professor walked by and asked what he was doing.
Nothing much, Pepper said.
Good, the professor replied. Then you’ll have time to work on my project.
Pepper, an astronomy student, was studying the giant black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The professor wanted to determine if an upcoming NASA mission could locate exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. The professor was not his adviser, but Pepper saw no way to decline. What was supposed to be a three-month project became a one-year investigation. During that time, the planned NASA mission was scrapped, but Pepper made a more significant discovery: The search for planets beyond the solar system—and potentially for life as well—could be effectively conducted with modest equipment.
On a budget of under $50,000, [Pepper] built the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope, or KELT, and deployed it at a private observatory near Sonoita, Arizona, an hour southeast of Tucson. The KELT scientists collaborate with amateur astronomers and with researchers at other universities and large observatories. The KELT Follow-Up Network, with 40 members in 10 countries, is the largest of its kind in the world. It has confirmed the discovery of 13 exoplanets and is preparing to announce the discovery of four more.