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Postdoc Receives Fellowship to Study Extrasolar Planets

Postdoc Receives Fellowship to Study Extrasolar Planets
Ben Tofflemire, a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a 51 Pegasi b Fellowship.

Ben Tofflemire, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a 51 Pegasi b Fellowship from the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Tofflemire received one of the eight fellowships awarded nationally this year, an acknowledgement of UT Austin's prominent role in the global effort to discover and study planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, established in 2017, provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational and experimental research in planetary astronomy. Tofflemire will receive $375,000 over three years to conduct independent research.

Many stars similar to our own Sun exist in binary systems, yet little is known about how these dynamic environments impact planet formation. Since these systems are challenging to observe, astronomers have largely focused their energy on single-star systems.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, Tofflemire will map the disks of dust and gas around young binary star systems believed to be currently developing planets, and predict how the orbit of the two stars are shaping them. By characterizing these stellar neighborhoods, he will identify specific configurations that enable planets to form. As more powerful telescopes come online in the next decades with the purpose of detecting Earthlike planets, his work will help direct their gaze in the smartest possible places.

"The known number of exoplanets generates many targets to pursue," Tofflemire said. "Understanding the planet-forming potential of binary star systems is going to help us direct our resources toward the right objects, and obtain the highest yield for our effort."

UT Austin researchers have made important contributions to the study of extrasolar planets, including these recent advances: the first validation of a habitable-zone exoplanet by the Habitable Zone Planet Finder instrument at McDonald Observatory and the discovery (led by an undergraduate student using artificial intelligence) of two new extrasolar planets.

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Friday, 10 April 2020

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