University of Hawaii Instutute for Astronomy
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IfA Publications

Press Release:

March 17 2005


Dr. Michael C. Liu

Mrs. Karen Rehbock


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Institute for Astronomy
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Planet-searcher Awarded Fellowship

Michael Liu photograph
Photograph by Katie Whitman

University of Hawaii astronomer Michael Liu has been awarded a prestigious Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship to search for newly-formed planets outside of our solar system.

When stars are born they are surrounded by dust and gas. If planets also form within this dust, their gravity can form patterns similar to the wakes left by boats passing in the ocean. Some patterns may even be bigger than the planet itself.

"A small boat moving on the ocean can produce a wake that is hundreds of feet long," said Liu. "Sometimes the wake remains visible even when you can't see the boat itself."

Using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Liu is studying the formation of planets around young stars - those about 10 million years old. By comparison, Earth and the rest of our own solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago.

By studying how young planets form around new stars, Liu hopes to learn how planets formed in our own solar system, as well as around other stars.

This year, the Sloan Foundation made eight awards to young scientists in the field of astrophysics. The fellowships were established in 1955 to provide support and recognition to early-career scientists and scholars, often in their first appointments to a university. Thirty-two Sloan Fellows have won Nobel Prizes later in their careers, and hundreds have received other honors.

Liu grew up in the Washington DC area and is a graduate of Cornell University and University of California at Berkeley. He came to the University of Hawaii as the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow in 2000 and was appointed to an assistant professorship in 2004.

Liu was first introduced to astronomy in Hawaii while doing graduate work in California. "Some of my doctoral research involved observing with the telescopes on Mauna Kea. The first time I came here, I remember how fantastic it was to visit Hawaii in the wintertime, while the rest of the country was cold and snowy. I feel lucky to be living here and doing astronomy at UH."

The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.

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