From University of California-Santa Cruz (US) : “Jonathan Fortney garners Simons Investigator in Astrophysics award”

From University of California-Santa Cruz (US)

June 29, 2021
Tim Stephens

Jonathan Fortney. Photo by C. Lagattuta.

The Simons Foundation has appointed Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, as a Simons Investigator in Astrophysics, providing $500,000 over five years to support his research.

The Simons Investigators program is intended to support outstanding theoretical scientists in their most productive years, when they are establishing creative new research directions, providing leadership to the field, and effectively mentoring junior scientists.

Fortney’s research focuses on understanding the atmospheres, interiors, and thermal evolution of planets, including exoplanets that orbit distant stars as well as the planets in our own solar system. He develops numerical models to explore many aspects of the physics of planets, from rocky worlds to gas giants. This work has provided a framework for understanding the atmospheres of exoplanets, their interior structure and thermal evolution, as well as physical processes like “helium rain” deep within Saturn.

Fortney often works closely with observers in interpreting the spectra of exoplanets to better understand their physics, chemistry, and clues to their formation. He directs the Other Worlds Laboratory (OWL), a UCSC research initiative that brings together researchers in several departments and features a unique summer visitors program.

Fortney is well known for his contributions to the understanding of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the so-called “hot Jupiter” exoplanets that orbit close to their host stars. He has also begun to broaden his research to include rocky terrestrial planets, as well as the cool, faint stars known as M stars.

“M stars are the most common stars in the sky, and some of the models we developed for hot planet atmospheres we can also apply to these cool stars,” Fortney said. “Some hot Jupiters are actually hotter than the coolest stars.”

The Simons Investigator funding will give him more time to focus on these new research directions.

“I have focused a lot on giant planets, and now my group is diversifying in both directions, looking at smaller planets as well as larger objects, the smallest stars,” Fortney said. “I’m trying to build a group that’s diverse in the sorts of problems we can tackle, and this award is very helpful to make that happen.”

With the deployment of new telescopes and instruments, such as the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers are looking forward to a wealth of new exoplanet observations.

“In this quest to understand the rapid influx of data, Jonathan Fortney’s technical skills and expertise are immeasurable assets to the community,” said Douglas N.C. Lin, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. “His versatility and breadth will enable him to grasp opportunities and embrace challenges brought forth by the anticipated and serendipitous discoveries.”

Each year, the Simons Foundation requests nominations from a targeted list of institutions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland for the Simons Investigator programs in mathematics, physics, astrophysics, and computer science. The Simons Investigators are appointed for an initial period of five years and receive research support of $100,000 per year.

Fortney was awarded the 2020 Paolo Farinella Prize from the Europlanet Society for his contributions to the understanding of giant planets, as well as the 2010 Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science from the American Astronomical Society. He earned his B.S. in physics at Iowa State University (US)and Ph.D. in planetary science at the University of Arizona (US). He joined the UCSC faculty in 2008.

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UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory Since 1888 Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).
UC Santa Cruz (US) campus.

The University of California-Santa Cruz (US) , opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

UCO Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US) who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

Shelley Wright of UC San Diego with (US) NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by University of California-Berkeley (US) researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.