From Iceland — Icelandic Astrophysicist Awarded In US

Icelandic Astrophysicist Awarded In US

Published September 1, 2021

Desirai Thompson
Photo by
Vísir/Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson

Icelandic astrophysicist Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson has been recognised in the United States for his work in helping develop a new technology that allows for more accurate measurements of distant planets from the ground, reports Vísir.

Awarded for doctoral work

The Pacific Astronomical Union (ASP) awarded Guðmundur Kári the Robert J. Trumpler Prize for his doctoral dissertation from the State University fo Pennslyvania in 2019. Previous winners include a Adam Riess, a Nobel laureate in Physics and Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s Department of Astrophysics. Guðmundur Kári told Vísir he is overwhelmed seeing the list of previous winners.

Titled “The Extreme Precision Photometry and Radical Velocimetry from the Ground”, the paper focused on the special equipment for grounded stellar telescopes which assists in their ability to find and study planets orbiting distant starts. The work Guðmundur Kári took part in is considered a “revolutionary innovation” but fellow scientists.

One of the Guðmundur Kári’s nominators has described the project as “the most extensive and deepest expertise in accurate astronomical measuring instruments I have ever seen”.

Importance of the project

Finding distant stars relies on the detection of small effects orbiting planets have on their parent stars. Two methods are often used: the Doppler method which measures the gravitational effect planets have on their star and a method which detects fading light from a star when a planet moves between the star and earth.

Ground-based telescopes have to see through over 100 kilometres of Earth’s atmosphere which can drastically distort readings, a struggle not faced by space-based telescopes.

The device Guðmundur Kári helped develop, called a light diffuser, has been described as “strikingly simple” solution to the problem. It is essentially a piece of nano-technologically-produced rough glass which diffuses the light through the telescope and cuts down on atmospheric distortion. This allows ground telescopes to produce views of distant starts on par with those obtained by space telescopes.

“This is a relatively inexpensive technology and it is relatively easy to install on different binoculars,” Guðmundur Kári says.

Light diffusers have been installed on telescopes all over the world since Guðmundur Kári and his colleagues published a paper on their usefulness in 2017. It has even be modified to the Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands, the largest telescope on Earth for measuring visible light.

Looking forward and upward

Guðmundur Kári is now conducting research at Princeton University on developing more accurate measurements with the Doppler method to track the movement of far-off planets. He and his colleagues have already confirmed two dozen planets with this technology are more are likely on the way to confirmation.

Vísir points out that gas giants similar to Jupiter and Neptune are the majority of new planets discovered but scientists dream of finding rocky planets with Earth-like atmospheres to study the potential for life in these places.

When speaking of his current research Guðmundur Kári told Vísir, “It’s just really exciting”.

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