The Winton Exoplanet Fellowship Programme supports gifted postdoctoral scientific researchers who are working on the detection and characterisation of exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system that orbit stars. The goal of the fellowship is to advance our fundamental understanding of their formation, structure, and potential habitability.
The fellowship programme recognises accomplished scientists in the early stage of their career and provides them with the opportunity to conduct independent research that could establish them as future leaders in their field. Successful postdoctoral fellows are expected to carry out an ambitious, coherent research programme.
Each recipient will receive a three-year grant of up to £220k to cover salary, benefits and discretionary spending (e.g. travel).
The programme also sponsors an annual planetary astronomy symposium to increase and facilitate the exchange of information and ideas in the field through the networking of students, postdoctoral researchers, young faculty members, and established researchers.
Winton Exoplanet Fellows 2018
While we have observed a wide range of planetary system architectures to date, we have little understanding of the processes that drive the formation and early evolution of those systems. Both of the 2018 Winton Exoplanet Fellows are conducting research in this area.
Dr Cassandra Hall
Dr Cassandra Hall, a postdoctoral research associate in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Leicester, will use state-of-the art computational techniques to focus on improving our fundamental understanding of exoplanet formation, through simulations of these exoplanets in their birth environment – a circumstellar disc around the host star.
While there are many ways to detect exoplanets, observing forming exoplanets cannot be done directly, since they are either too cold to emit sufficient photons, or there is too much other material around the disc obscuring the light. What can be done, however, is looking at the signatures they leave in the disc. This is a bit like guessing the size and shape of animals from footprints in the sand - but instead, these planets create ring-like or spiral-like features in a disc.
These signatures can be observed using interferometry, a technique where many antennae work together to improve resolution and sensitivity. But to understand these signatures we need advanced computational techniques, such as simulating the gas of the disc, known as hydrodynamics simulations, or creating a synthetic telescope image, by simulating photons.
Cassandra proposes to develop models of discs and planets that will provide a consistent theoretical framework to explain or predict the range of exoplanet and disc parameters that create signposts of exoplanet formation.
Dr Edward Gillen
Dr Edward Gillen, a postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, will monitor several young open star clusters to search for young transiting “hot Jupiter” planets to better understand the formation and early evolution of planetary systems.
The term “hot Jupiter” planets describes those planets that have gaseous structures akin to Jupiter’s, but by contrast orbit their star with relatively short orbital periods. The majority of giant planet formation happens within a few million years with some planets eventually migrating inwards towards their host star.
Edward’s fellowship proposal is to find the detectable hot Jupiter planets and observe them in orbit around young stars, that is stars that range in age from a million- to a billion-years-old.
To do this, Edward will study data from NGTS – the Next Generation Transit Survey – which comprises 12 robotic telescopes in Chile. The hope is to gain a better understanding of the processes that drive planet migration, as well as the timescales involved, and to measure fundamental properties such as mass and radius at young ages.