Campus & Community

Harvard astronomer Charbonneau honored with Waterman Award

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David Charbonneau, the 34-year-old Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy, has been named the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s 2009 Alan T. Waterman Award, and will receive $500,000 over a three-year period for scientific research or advanced study in his field.

The annual Waterman Award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Candidates may not be more than 35 years old, or seven years beyond receiving a doctorate, and must stand out for their individual achievements.

Discover Magazine’s 2007 Scientist of the Year, Charbonneau’s research focuses on the development of novel techniques for the detection and characterization of planets orbiting nearby sunlike stars — extrasolar planets, also known as exoplanets.

“David Charbonneau is an extremely talented, young scientist,” said NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr. “His selection is especially noteworthy in this International Year of Astronomy, as the world focuses on breakthroughs in astronomy and how these discoveries affect the lives of those on Earth. Charbonneau is one of the best in his field, engaging in stellar research now and providing great hope for future discoveries as his research progresses along with his impressive career.”

As a graduate student in 1999, Charbonneau used a 10-centimeter (4-inch) telescope to make the first detection of an exoplanet eclipsing its parent star, which yielded the first-ever constraint on the composition of a planet outside the solar system. He was a founding member of the Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey, which used a worldwide network of small, automated telescopes to survey hundreds of thousands of stars, discovering in the process four more planetary systems through the eclipse technique.

Charbonneau also pioneered the use of space-based observatories to undertake the first studies of the atmospheres of these distant worlds: In 2001 he used the Hubble Space Telescope to directly study the chemical makeup of the atmosphere enshrouding one of these exoplanets, and in 2005, he led the team that used the Spitzer Space Telescope to make the first direct detection of the light emitted by an exoplanet.

Charbonneau is a member of the NASA Kepler Team and is currently leading the NSF-funded MEarth Project. Each of these projects aims to detect Earth-like planets that might be suitable abodes for life beyond the solar system.

Charbonneau earned his doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University and his undergraduate degree in math and physics from the University of Toronto.

In addition to winning the NSF’s top award, Charbonneau has been awarded many distinctions through the years. In 2004, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded him the Robert J. Trumpler Award for his graduate thesis titled “Shadows and Reflections of Extrasolar Planets.” He was recently named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow (2006-11), and awarded a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering (2006-08) and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (2006).

Charbonneau will receive the Waterman Award at an awards dinner on May 13 at the U.S. Department of State, details of which are forthcoming.