UCLA's David Jewitt, who earlier this week was awarded the Shaw Prize in astronomy, has also won the 2012 Kavli Prize in astrophysics for his role in the 1993 discovery of the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, it was announced today. Each prize comes with a $1 million award.
The discovery of the Kuiper Belt, which contains more than a billion objects and was once believed to be empty space, has fundamentally changed the modern perception of the solar system.
That the Shaw and Kavli prize committees independently made the same choice in the same week is "pretty excellent," Jewitt said.
Jewitt shared the Shaw Prize with Jane X. Luu, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratories who was his former graduate student. The Kavli Prize was awarded to Jewitt, Luu and Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology, "for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system."
Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy, directs UCLA's Institute for Planets and Exoplanets. His research focuses on the exploration of the small bodies of the solar system, which provide clues to the origin and evolution of planets.
Jewitt and Luu spent six years making observations of the outer solar system. In 1992, they detected the first known object in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune's orbit. Since then, they and others have identified more than a thousand Kuiper Belt objects. Astronomers are particularly interested in these objects because their composition may be close to the primordial material that coalesced around the sun during the formation of the solar system.
"Prior to the detection of the first trans-Neptunian objects by Jewitt and Luu in 1993, little was known about the content of the solar system between the orbit of Neptune ... and the Oort cloud," the Shaw Prize's astronomy selection committee wrote. The committee selected Jewitt and Luu "for their discovery and characterization of trans-Neptunian bodies, an archeological treasure dating back to the formation of the solar system ... They provide our best record of the early stages of planet formation."
"It's a fantastic recognition of the work that Jane and I have done," Jewitt said Tuesday of the Shaw Prize. "It's completely amazing that this vast region of the solar system could have gone undiscovered for so long. It makes me wonder what else is out there."
The icy bodies Jewitt and Luu discovered are relics of the planet-formation phase of the solar system, Jewitt said. Scientists believe there are more than a billion objects in the Kuiper Belt that are more than a kilometer across, he said.
"People used to think that the outer solar system was empty, because it looked empty," he said. "Mostly, the objects were just very faint, and people weren't looking hard enough to see them. It's the repository of the most primitive material in the solar system. This discovery is what led to Pluto falling from grace."
People weren't too happy with him about the demotion of Pluto from planetary to dwarf-planetary status, he said. "I had a death threat one time. But it doesn't make any difference for Pluto. It's just a fact."
The Kavli Prizes — a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation in the U.S., and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research — are awarded bienially to scientists for "seminal advances" in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. They were initiated by and named for Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of the Kavli Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work.
Norway's King Harald will present the Kavli Prizes to the 2012 laureates at a ceremony in Oslo Sept. 4. For more information, visit www.kavliprize.no and http://worldsciencefestival.com/webcasts/kavli2012.
The Shaw Prizes are awarded by the Shaw Foundation, established by Run Run Shaw, a Chinese media mogul in Hong Kong, to honor significant breakthroughs in astronomy, the life sciences and medicine.
In addition to his roles at UCLA, Jewitt is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
For more on UCLA research by Jewitt, see:
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