Whether we are alone in the universe and how common life-bearing planets are is one of the fundamental questions in science. The 2020 US Decadal Survey identified “pathways to habitable worlds” as one of the primary drivers for astronomy in the 2020s. My research addresses one of the key aspects of this fundamental question, “how common is the Solar System?”, seeking to understand how planets and the systems in which they reside form and evolve, how planets like our own come to be, and why some planetary systems are so dramatically different to our own.
These questions have many facets that touch on different fields, and my work reflects this diversity, crossing the divide between astronomy and planetary science, taking in both exoplanetary systems and our own Solar System. Computational and theoretical work lie at the core of my research, but I am maintain a narrow divide between my theoretical work and observational data, benefiting from strong, long-standing collaborations with observational astronomers. I am also now developing laboratory-based projects in support of my theoretical work where existing data is lacking.
A common thread that runs through many of my research projects is debris, the leftover flotsam and jetsam of planet formation. Though much less flashy than their planetary cousins these small, sometimes under-appreciated, bodies have an important role to play in helping us piece together the processes of planet formation, both in our own Solar system and farther afield.
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is my work on circumstellar debris disks. Although an individual piece of debris is much smaller than a planet, these small bodies have a very much larger surface area-to-mass ratio which means that a disk of debris can be much more easily detectable than a planet that is several orders of magnitude more massive, in much the same way that if you blow even a small amount of flour or chalk dust into the air it can make it hard to see through. This allows us to build up a picture of the population of planetary systems in ways that is not possible with planets themselves. Moreover, large and/or nearby disks can be spatially resolved allowing us to use the structure of the disk to make inferences about the presence of planets in the system.
A particularly exciting development in debris disk research in recent years is the advent of time-domain astronomy, pioneered by my collaborators at the University of Arizona. The ability to track changes in the debris produced by a recent impact event in real time gives us access to much more information about the orbital location of the impact and the nature of the colliding bodies. New spectroscopic data from the James Webb Space Telescope will also allow us to investigate the bulk composition of the forming planets, something that has not previously been possible.
A major topic that has been part of many aspects of my research is giant impacts. Giant impacts occur in the chaotic final stages of terrestrial planet formation when massive planetary bodies collide with one other to form the final terrestrial planets. These are some of the most violent events to occur during the planet formation process and can strongly influence the final makeup of terrestrial planets, both in terms of their mass and in terms of the proportions of elements and minerals of which they are composed. As a result of the violence of these giant impacts, in addition to producing the final planets large quantities of small debris is also released. Although giant impacts are most associated with the formation of terrestrial planets they can also occur in other parts of a planetary system. The formation of the Pluto-Charon system is most likely the result of a giant impact.
Since the discovery of 'Oumuamua in 2017 I have been fascinated by interstellar objects. These are pieces of debris from other planetary systems and provide us with the means to investigate the formation and evolution of another planetary system in more direct and detailed ways than we can achieve with our indirect observations of distant systems. Interstellar objects are poised to become a rapidly growing field over the next decade as the Vera Rubin Observatory will dramatically increase our ability to discover them. In anticipation there are already plans for space missions to visit an interstellar object, with the European Comet Interceptor mission due to launch in 2029. In 2021 my co-author Steve Desch and I published the best current model for the composition of 'Oumuamua and I expect to be closely involved in this growing field, for example through my membership in the Solar System Science Collaboration for the Vera Rubin Observatory.
Many of these topics are represented in the projects listed on the projects page, in addition major ambitions for the future include improving our knowledge of the size distribution of debris produced in impacts as this is a significant issue for all debris studies, and reducing our reliance on computationally intensive N-body simulations.
In the past I have also studied the evaporation of planetary atmospheres under the influence of high-energy radiation, and maintain an interest in the physics of planetary atmospheres and their evolution.
For more detail about individual projects please see the Projects page.
Image credit: Alan Jackson, summit of Mauna Kea looking towards the Keck and Subaru telescopes from the Gemini North telescope.