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School of Physical and Chemical Sciences

Astronomy Unit member receives €1.5 million European Research Council Grant to study exoplanet evolution

Dr Ed Gillen, from Queen Mary's Astronomy Unit, has been awarded €1.5 million from the European Research Council to support a team to investigate how exoplanetary systems evolve into potentially habitable environments


Artist’s impression of a young, active star being transited by a planet. Image credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics / David A. Aguilar

With over 5000 exoplanets discovered to date, and many more expected in the coming years, we are living through a golden age of exoplanet discovery. We now know that planetary systems exhibit a wide diversity in their properties and that our own Solar System is not typical. For example, we have found planets like Jupiter orbiting their host stars in only a few days (so called “hot Jupiters”), planetary systems containing multiple small planets on tightly packed orbits that are all smaller than Mercury’s and, perhaps most surprising of all, we have discovered that planets with sizes between those of the Earth and Neptune are the most common, yet we have no such analogues in our own Solar System.

The processes that govern how planetary systems develop into the diverse population we observe are thought to occur during the first billion years after formation. As the vast majority of known exoplanets orbit mature stars like our Sun, which are more than a billion years old, it is difficult to unravel the processes that drove their early evolution as they have already occurred and finished. To understand the early evolution of planetary systems, and hence their resulting diversity and potential habitability, we need to detect and characterise young planetary systems, which are still in the process of evolving.

This ERC grant will fund a large team to work with Dr Gillen to conduct ground-breaking research into understanding how planetary systems evolve into the diverse and potentially habitable population we observe. They will detect young planetary systems, determine their orbital architectures and planet properties, develop a new method to age-date these systems, and then draw these avenues together to reveal how planetary systems evolve. These efforts will use state-of-the-art space and ground-based observatories, as well as cutting-edge data analysis techniques.

Dr Gillen said: “While we have discovered many exoplanets, we have only begun to scratch the surface of probing how planetary systems evolve from formation to maturity. This ERC project will enable us to significantly advance our understanding of planetary system evolution and will produce a new age dating framework that will have far reaching implications for the wider exoplanet, stellar and Galactic astrophysics fields.”



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