18 June 2012

Remarkable Odyssey

Jane Luu

My congratulations go out to Jane Luu (MIT Lincoln Laboratory), David Jewitt (UCLA), and Michael Brown (Caltech) for winning this year's prestigious Kavli Prize in astrophysics, which includes a cash award of $1 million.  In 1992 both Luu, then at Harvard, and Jewitt, who was based at the University of Hawaii at the time, discovered the first large object orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and Pluto. They quickly found others as well.  Brown followed up in 2005 by finding Eris, an object about the same size as Pluto but with nearly a third more mass.  


All in all, these three astronomers proved the existence of the "Kuiper belt," a disk of icy planetesimals long proposed to lie beyond the outer planets of our solar system.  Their discoveries ultimately caused Pluto to be demoted to "dwarf planet," joining its more similar companions in the belt.  


I was particularly thrilled for Jane, who I profiled in 1996 for Astronomy magazine.  Click here to read how Jane's life journey took her from war-ravaged Vietnam to the outer reaches of our solar system.


Image Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory