From California Institute of Technology (US) : “Caltech Astronomers Win New Horizons Breakthrough Prize”

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From California Institute of Technology (US)

September 09, 2021

Professor of Astronomy Mansi Kasliwal (MS ’07, PhD ’11) and Professor of Astronomy Gregg Hallinan have been named winners of a 2022 New Horizons Prize in Physics, one of several Breakthrough Prizes announced today.

Mansi Kasliwal Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

Gregg Hallinan

Together with former Caltech postdoctoral scholar Alessandra Corsi, now at The Texas Tech University (US), and Raffaella Margutti of The University of California-Berkeley (US), the scientists are being honored “for leadership in laying foundations for electromagnetic observations of sources of gravitational waves, and leadership in extracting rich information from the first observed collision of two neutron stars,” according to the award citation.

In 2017, Kasliwal, Hallinan, Corsi, and Margutti helped make history with their observations of the first-ever cosmic event to be witnessed in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic-or light-waves. The event called GW170817 began when two dense stellar remnants-called neutron stars-spiraled together and collided, creating a storm of ripples in space and time, or gravitational waves, that traveled outward in all directions. Some of those waves ultimately reached Earth, where the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory(LIGO) detected their signatures.

Just seconds after the gravitational waves were produced, the neutron star collision resulted in an explosion of matter, as well as light spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from high-energy gamma rays to low-energy radio waves. Kasliwal’s team was one of the first to observe the collision in visible and infrared light, using the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen (GROWTH) project, a worldwide network of telescopes that specializes in catching short-lived energetic events such as this. The GROWTH team put together a picture of a cocoon breaking out to explain the rich multi-wavelength dataset.

Around two weeks later, as predicted by models, Gregg Hallinan, who is also director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), together with Alessandra Corsi and collaborators, began seeing the radio waves created by the event using the Very Large Array, a collection of 27 radio telescopes in New Mexico.

These radio observations later confirmed the presence of the cocoon, as well as providing the first direct confirmation that a relativistic jet, consistent with an energetic short gamma-ray burst, was produced by the merger. The collision was also seen by X-ray detecting telescopes.

The observation of celestial events through multiple channels (gravitational waves, visible light, X-rays and radio waves, in this case is known as multi-messenger astronomy, and is a growing field of study.

“It is truly an honor to be awarded the New Horizons Prize in Physics, and to share it with valued colleagues,” Hallinan says. “Multi-messenger astronomy is an exciting field undergoing exponential growth, and I am grateful to those who have worked closely with me on this journey, particularly Kunal Mooley, Mansi Kasliwal, Udi Nakar, Samaya Nissanke, Kenta Hotokezaka, Alessandra Corsi, Shri Kulkarni, and Dale Frail.”

Kasliwal also highlighted the team-based nature of the work.

“Collaborating with a worldwide network of astronomers—the GROWTH collaboration—and working closely with observatory staff and engineers is inspiring. Mentoring students and postdocs is the biggest perk of my job,” Kasliwal says. “Pursuing astrophysics to unlock mysteries of our universe is truly a dream job for me—a passion converted into a profession in a dynamic field where the book is actively being written. Discovering where and how the elements in our periodic table are synthesized is exhilarating.”

Each New Horizons Prize, which is intended to honor early-career scientists showing leadership in their field, is accompanied by a $100,000 award. The awards ceremony, televised live, has been postponed until 2022 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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The California Institute of Technology (US) is a private research university in Pasadena, California. The university is known for its strength in science and engineering, and is one among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States which is primarily devoted to the instruction of pure and applied sciences.

Caltech was founded as a preparatory and vocational school by Amos G. Throop in 1891 and began attracting influential scientists such as George Ellery Hale, Arthur Amos Noyes, and Robert Andrews Millikan in the early 20th century. The vocational and preparatory schools were disbanded and spun off in 1910 and the college assumed its present name in 1920. In 1934, Caltech was elected to the Association of American Universities, and the antecedents of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (US)’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech continues to manage and operate, were established between 1936 and 1943 under Theodore von Kármán.

Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphasis on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. First-year students are required to live on campus, and 95% of undergraduates remain in the on-campus House System at Caltech. Although Caltech has a strong tradition of practical jokes and pranks, student life is governed by an honor code which allows faculty to assign take-home examinations. The Caltech Beavers compete in 13 intercollegiate sports in the NCAA Division III’s Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC).

As of October 2020, there are 76 Nobel laureates who have been affiliated with Caltech, including 40 alumni and faculty members (41 prizes, with chemist Linus Pauling being the only individual in history to win two unshared prizes). In addition, 4 Fields Medalists and 6 Turing Award winners have been affiliated with Caltech. There are 8 Crafoord Laureates and 56 non-emeritus faculty members (as well as many emeritus faculty members) who have been elected to one of the United States National Academies. Four Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force and 71 have won the United States National Medal of Science or Technology. Numerous faculty members are associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute(US) as well as National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US). According to a 2015 Pomona College(US) study, Caltech ranked number one in the U.S. for the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn a PhD.


Caltech is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”. Caltech was elected to the Association of American Universities in 1934 and remains a research university with “very high” research activity, primarily in STEM fields. The largest federal agencies contributing to research are National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US); National Science Foundation(US); Department of Health and Human Services(US); Department of Defense(US), and Department of Energy(US).

In 2005, Caltech had 739,000 square feet (68,700 m^2) dedicated to research: 330,000 square feet (30,700 m^2) to physical sciences, 163,000 square feet (15,100 m^2) to engineering, and 160,000 square feet (14,900 m^2) to biological sciences.

In addition to managing JPL, Caltech also operates the Caltech Palomar Observatory(US); the Owens Valley Radio Observatory(US);the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory(US); the W. M. Keck Observatory at the Mauna Kea Observatory(US); the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at Livingston, Louisiana and Richland, Washington; and Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory(US) in Corona del Mar, California. The Institute launched the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at Caltech in 2006; the Keck Institute for Space Studies in 2008; and is also the current home for the Einstein Papers Project. The Spitzer Science Center(US), part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center(US) located on the Caltech campus, is the data analysis and community support center for NASA’s Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope [no longer in service].

Caltech partnered with University of California at Los Angeles(US) to establish a Joint Center for Translational Medicine (UCLA-Caltech JCTM), which conducts experimental research into clinical applications, including the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer.

Caltech operates several Total Carbon Column Observing Network(US) stations as part of an international collaborative effort of measuring greenhouse gases globally. One station is on campus.