Professor David Charbonneau wins 2024 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

David Charbonneau

Photo by Nils Lund

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The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has named astrophysics professor David Charbonneau a winner of the 2024 Kavli Prize, which recognizes innovative scientific research that transforms humanity’s understanding of “the big, the small, and the complex.”

One of eight scientists awarded, Charbonneau received the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics for his work on extrasolar planets, or exoplanets. The Fred Kavli Professor of Astrophysics in the Department of Astronomy and a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics, Charbonneau is credited with pioneering what is now called the transit method of studying exoplanets. In 1999, he used this technique, which involves measuring the light from the planet’s sun as the planet passes in front of it, to confirm the presence of a hot Jupiter in orbit around the star HD209458 – obtained using a tiny 4-inch telescope.

He went on to scrutinize the atmospheres of exoplanets, in 2001 using data from the Hubble Space Telescope to identify sodium in light transmitted through the atmosphere of HD209458, then three years later measuring an exoplanet’s own thermal emission in observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope.

He is actively involved in the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) observations. Charbonneau also leads the MEarth Project – arrays of robotic telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres ­– aiming to detect rocky planets by observing nearby M dwarf stars. The project has revealed a number of small exoplanets, including the Earth-like world LHS1140b.

Charbonneau is a previous recipient of the T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation in 2009; the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences in 2012; and the Blavatnik Award in Physical Sciences and Engineering in 2016. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Charbonneau co-won the Kavli astrophysics prize with fellow exoplanet researcher and former Harvard graduate student Sara Seager of MIT.

“Today, the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres, particularly via transit spectroscopy, is an emerging field,” according to the Kavli Prize citation committee. “Seager and Charbonneau have pioneered methods for the detection of atomic species in planetary atmospheres and the measurement of their thermal infrared emission, thus setting the stage for finding the molecular fingerprints of atmospheres around both giant and rocky planets.”