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Detecting Molecules, Researching Planets

Freiburg Astrophysicist Receives Prestigious Grant from European Research Council

Freiburg, Apr 20, 2012

2.5 million euros to study the gaseous environment of planets outside of our solar system and their precursors – so-called protoplanets: Prof. Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina from the Institute of Physics of the University of Freiburg and the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics (KIS) will receive an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council for the coming five years (ERC). The European Union program is designed to help leading scholars launch new research projects.

For her project at KIS, Berdyugina will apply innovative measurement methods in order to detect so-called hot molecules like water and methane in warm planetary atmospheres. These hot molecules are the key to understanding the formation of Earth-like planets and planets in habitable zones can develop. In 2008 the astrophysicist and her team succeeded in detecting reflected light from a planet outside of our solar system for the first time ever.

The technique of polarimetry in spectral lines of hot molecules, which the researchers used for those experiments, will again be applied in the ERC-funded project. Light is an electromagnetic wave and thus has an oscillation direction. The sources of the radiation are individual atoms or molecules that emit energy. In unordered systems with many atoms, all oscillation directions occur with equal frequency. If the symmetry in a system of this kind is broken by a physical process, however, certain oscillation directions occur more frequently than others. As a result, one direction predominates – the light is polarized. Of the various mechanisms that can polarize light, Svetlana Berdyugina is particularly interested in magnetic fields as well as the scattering in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet illuminated from behind by its parent star. The degrees of polarization involved are miniscule. The sensitivity of the measurement method is currently limited to roughly 0.001 percent. Berdyugina aims to improve this method and use it to search for further, hitherto unknown effects that change the polarization of light.

The KIS in Freiburg is a member of the Leibniz Association. It conducts research on physical processes in the sun, in stars, and in their immediate environments with experimental and theoretical methods.

Prof. Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina
Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics
Phone: 0761/3198-101