Federico Marocco

Staff Scientist


Welcome to a new series featuring IPAC scientists, in which we get to know some of the people who work behind the scenes supporting NASA and other projects, while also conducting their own research.

To kick off this new series, we are featuring Federico Marocco, an early career staff scientist at IPAC, and an expert on brown dwarfs. Federico tells us about his science pursuits, how he ended up at IPAC, what he likes about working here, and what advice he has for future astronomers.

How did you become interested in science and what are your current science interests?

My high school physics teacher, Professor Paolo Gallizio, is the person who really got me interested in physical sciences. He was able to communicate the concepts of physics in a simple and intuitive way. There was also a wonderful Italian TV program called "Superquark" that was about science in general. Three or four shows were dedicated specifically to astrophysics, and that is where my interest in space and astronomy really started. It was fascinating to learn and understand what is out there, including the extremes that exist in space—for example, in temperature.

The reason why I first came to Pasadena was that the people at JPL were putting together something called the CatWISE catalog that was going to be a treasure trove for finding brown dwarfs. (Editor’s Note: The CatWISE2020 Catalog consists of 1,890,715,640 sources over the entire sky selected from Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and NEOWISE survey data at 3.4 and 4.6 μm). So, after getting my Ph.D. and doing postdoctoral research, both at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in January 2018 I joined JPL. In May 2020, I came to IPAC, first as a postdoc, and then I became a staff scientist in October 2021.

Brown Dwarfs - Federico Marocco

A comparison of planets, brown dwarfs and stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

I have studied mostly brown dwarfs. They are truly interesting and cool (temperature-wise and otherwise!) objects between planets and stars, as they share properties with both. I mostly work on brown dwarfs that are companions to stars, as the companion star properties can reveal the age and the metallicity of the brown dwarf. You can also learn about the atmospheres of exoplanets by applying your brown dwarf knowledge to exoplanets, as they share the same temperature, etc.

What does your daily job involve?

I am part of the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor Survey Data System team, in which I am developing a part of the data system—specifically the code that will perform the astrometric calibration of the images. (Editor’s Note: NEO Surveyor is a new mission that will discover and characterize asteroids near Earth that are potentially hazardous; IPAC has been chosen to be the mission’s data center). 

A typical day for me starts with checking email and addressing anything urgent. Then, I focus on my project work for NEO Surveyor, unless there is a telescope proposal deadline. After lunch with a group of other IPACers, I continue my functional or science work between meetings that are held either in person or on Zoom. I try to go home no later than 6:30 p.m. and have dinner at home.

I hope to continue working to find brown dwarfs of colder and colder temperatures. There are science questions I want to help answer, such as “Where does the spectral sequence end?” and “What is the dividing line between brown dwarfs and giant Jupiters?” NEO Surveyor should really help with achieving that goal. I would also love to find signs of life, maybe on a planet around a brown dwarf. 

What do you like most about working at IPAC?

My favorite aspect is the collaborative atmosphere. At IPAC the focus is on supporting and managing resources (missions and archives) that benefit the entire astronomical community. It is great to know that you are enabling others to do amazing science—well beyond what one alone can think of! 

I also like the fact that IPAC is a place where astrophysics and data science meet, which is a great place to be in the era of “big data.” At IPAC, one is perfectly placed to learn new skills or, simply, have easy access to great help and excellent advice from colleagues who are at the forefront of the development of new methods and tools that will allow us to take full advantage of the incredible wealth of data we will soon have.

How do you like to spend your time outside of IPAC? 

I like gardening and hanging out with my friends. When gardening, I mostly grow edible plants. At the end you get to literally enjoy the fruits of your work. 

Tell us one funny story from your science career

I was observing at Palomar, with the 200-inch telescope. When the first image of the night was displayed on the screen, I saw a big, bright elliptical object in one corner of the image and thought "that's a big nearby galaxy.” However, the finder chart for the field showed no galaxy. As I was scratching my head to understand why my finder chart did not show that object, the next image came through, and the "galaxy" had moved to a different location! As a sci-fi geek, my first thought was: aliens! All jokes aside, I called the support astronomer, Carolyn Heffner, who took a look at the image and told me "that's a bug." “A bug in the program that displays the image?" I asked. "No," she answered, "an actual bug on the filter wheel.” So, we interrupted the observations, put the 200-inch telescope into "parked" position, and Carolyn blew the insect away using an air compressor. 

What would you say to young astronomy enthusiasts who want to pursue astronomy as a career?

One piece of advice is – learn to code! A good foundation in computer science is becoming more and more important in this career.

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