Sagan once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," which is in line with the Sagan Fellowship's primary goal: to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around other stars. Planets outside of our solar system are called exoplanets. The fellowship also aims to support outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists in conducting independent research broadly related to the science goals of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program.
Previous Sagan Fellows have contributed significant discoveries in exoplanet exploration. including: the first characterizations of a super-Earth's atmosphere using a ground-based telescope; and the discovery of a massive disk of dust and gas encircling a giant young star, which could potentially answer the long-standing question of how massive stars are born.
"The Sagan Fellowship program seeks to identify the most highly qualified young researchers in the field of exoplanets. Nowhere is the dynamism of this young branch of astronomy demonstrated more dramatically than by the intellectual quality and enthusiasm of these five new Sagan Fellows," said Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "These scientists are certain to be leaders of this exciting and rapidly growing field for many years to come."
The program, created in 2008, awards selected postdoctoral scientists with annual stipends of approximately $64,500 for up to three years, plus an annual research budget of up to $16,000. Topics range from techniques for detecting the glow of a dim planet in the blinding glare of its host star, to searching for the crucial ingredients of life in other planetary systems.
The 2011 Sagan Fellows are:
-- David Kipping, who will work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, to combine theory and observation to conduct a search for the moons of exoplanets.
-- Bryce Croll, who will work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., to characterize the atmospheres of both large and small exoplanets using a variety of telescopes.
-- Wladimir Lyra, who will work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to study planet-forming disks and exoplanet formation.
-- Katie Morzinski, who will work at the University of Arizona, Tucson, to commission and employ high-contrast adaptive optics systems that will directly image Jupiter-like exoplanets.
-- Sloane Wiktorowicz, who will work at the University of California, Santa Cruz to use a technique called optical polarimetry to directly detect exoplanets.
NASA has two other astrophysics theme-based fellowship programs: the Einstein Fellowship Program, which supports research into the physics of the cosmos, and the Hubble Fellowship Program, which supports research into cosmic origins. The Sagan Fellowship Program is administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute as part of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.