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Planetary Astrophysics


A View of the Earth in Quadrature

“I should disclose and publish to the world the occasion of discovering and observing four Planets, never seen from the beginning of the world up to our own times, their positions, and the observations... about their movements and their changes of magnitude”

--- Galileo Galilei (March 1610) on his discovery, in the previous year, of the moons of Jupiter.


Four hundred years after Galileo’s discoveries via the first astronomical use of the telescope, the world’s astronomers are once again using powerful new instrumentation to make startling discoveries of and about new planets, quite literally other worlds. This work not only drives the rapid growth of a major new research field but also promises to once again transform our understanding of the nature of the Earth and of life’s and humanity’s places in the cosmos. Over the past decade the study of both extrasolar and Solar System planets has thus become one of the most active research areas at Princeton, with projects that span the full range from development of new instrumentation through large and small observational studies to theoretical investigations.

Department theorists with major planetary science research efforts include Adam Burrows who works extensively on the modeling of exoplanetary atmospheres and evolution with a strong orientation towards interpretation of the rising flood of new data on these diverse objects. Roman Rafikov studies the many puzzles associated with the formation of planetary systems, while Jeremy Goodman and James Stone focus their interests on the dynamics and evolution of the proto-planetary disks in which planet formation begins. Scott Tremaine works on fundamental dynamical problems in a variety of contexts, including both Solar System and exoplanet ones. Christopher Chyba's interests are directed towards understanding the complex and often startling properties of icy moons in the outer Solar System, while Richard Gott's concern the formation mechanism of the Moon. David Spergel works on problems in theoretical optics associated with ultra high-contrast imaging systems that are needed for the study of exoplanets.

Led by observers Gillian Knapp and Edwin Turner, the Department is a major partner in a very large scale Subaru observing program (120 nights over 5 years with more than 500 targets), in collaboration with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. This effort involves extremely high contrast differential imaging in a variety of modes using a new state-of-the-art coronagraphic and adaptive optics instrument, HiCIAO+AO188. Knapp also works extensively on very low mass stars and brown dwarfs, transition objects to the planet regime, as well as on star and disk formation problems. Turner's other interests include the development of observational characterization tools for future exoplanet space missions, the spectroscopic characterization of hot Jupiter systems from ground-based data and the statistical analysis of exoplanetary system populations.

Engineering (and associate Department) faculty Jeremy Kasdin and Robert Vanderbei are working with both theorists and observers in the Department to develop optical systems for high contrast imaging, for space- and ground-based applications, via both design studies and laboratory experimentation. Department postdoctoral fellows and graduate students are extensively and deeply involved in all of these research efforts.

Department Faculty Members With Major Planet Research Interests: