Jane Luu honored with the Shaw Prize in Astronomy and
the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

Five years of research led to discoveries that changed astronomers’ perceptions about the outer regions of the solar system

Jane LuuDr. Jane Luu, a technical staff member in the Active Optical Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, is a co-recipient of the 2012 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2012 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. Along with Prof. David Jewitt, who is currently at the University of California–Los Angeles, she was recognized by the Shaw Foundation for the discovery and characterization of objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune's orbit. The Kavli Prize recognized not only Luu and Jewitt but also Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology for Kuiper Belt discoveries. Prof. Brown built on Luu and Jewitt's work to extend understanding of the outer solar system.

In 1992, when they made their detection of the first trans-Neptunian object, Jewitt was at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Luu was doing postdoctoral research at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jewitt had been Luu's doctoral thesis advisor at MIT. They had begun searching for an object in the far reaches of the solar system in 1987. "The thinking was that there was nothing out there," says Luu, "but Dave said we should check this out. The CCDs [charge-coupled devices] in the telescopes at that time were about 512 pixels by 512, yielding a very small field of view so it would take a long time to cover a significant area of the sky. I asked Dave, 'Isn't this kind of crazy?' and he answered, 'If we don't do this, who will?'"

Prior to their discovery of the Kuiper Belt objects, little was known about the solar system region beyond Neptune. Today, the world knows that thousands of icy bodies with diameters large than 50 km populate that region. In addition, researchers have used Jewitt and Luu's characterizations of those objects to improve understanding of the early stages of planet formation.

Luu said their motivation for the search was curiosity. "It was an interesting question. We never expected anything. I think these prizes surprised me more than anyone. We knew what we did was important, but we did not expect it to be recognized like this. Back then, we did not even publicize our discovery." Now 20 years later, the awards for that discovery are generating publicity that is reaching beyond the astronomical community that has long known how important the discovery of Kuiper Belt objects has been. The Shaw Prize citation summarized this discovery as "an archaeological treasure dating back to the formation of the solar system" and notes that the objects "provide our best record of the early stages of planet formation."

The Shaw Prize is an international award that honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to their fields. The prize consists of three annual awards—one each in astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. The Shaw prize, established in 2002 by Chinese film industry magnate and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, is administered by the Shaw Prize Foundation in Hong Kong. The foundation supports education, scientific research, medical and human welfare services, and culture.

The biennial Kavli Prize recognizes scientists for seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. It is a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation in the United States, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The prize in astrophysics is awarded for work that advances the understanding of the origin, evolution, and properties of the universe. Nominees come from around the world and are recommended by international academies and scientific organizations, such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, or the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Posted June 2012

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