Leading Exoplanet Hunters Awarded Science Prize

Winners are the astronomers behind La Silla’s world-leading HARPS instrument

3 February 2012

World-renowned Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory have been awarded the 2011 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences for their work on exoplanets.

The foundation recognised their groundbreaking efforts in developing “new astronomical instruments and experimental techniques that led to the observation of planets outside the solar system”. These were instrumental in the first discovery of an exoplanet around a normal star, made by their team in 1995. The discovery revolutionised astronomy and initiated an entire new field that is focused on finding and characterising exoplanets. Since then, this field has been recognised by agencies and institutes around the world as one of the major challenges for astronomy in the coming decades.

Michel Mayor and his then PhD student Didier Queloz developed the radial velocity technique for planet detection, which looks for the wobble of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet as it orbits the star. Today, the radial velocity technique is still the most successful in finding exoplanets, and the only way to determine planetary masses. The pair also took part in developing the transit method, in which the passage of a planet in front of its star is detected by the dimming of the light received from the star.

Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were also at the heart of a consortium, led by the Geneva Observatory with the help of ESO and other organisations, which developed the HARPS spectrograph, installed on ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile in 2003. HARPS has greatly contributed to the search for exoplanets with an impressive crop of super-Earths and Neptune-mass planets, demonstrating that a large fraction of the stars in the solar neighbourhood host low-mass planets. HARPS was described by the award jury as the “world’s leading planet discovery machine”.

The award presentation ceremony will take place on 21 June 2012.

More Information

The jury was chaired by Theodor Hänsch, 2005 Nobel Physics laureate, Professor of Physics at LMU Munich and Director of the Department of Laser Spectroscopy at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany), with Avelino Corma, Research Professor in the Instituto de Tecnología Química (CSIC – Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, UPV) acting as secretary. Remaining members were Douglas Abraham, Professor of Statistical Mechanics in the Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics at Oxford University (United Kingdom); Ignacio Cirac, Director of the Theory Division at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) and BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in Basic Sciences in the first edition of the awards; Hongkun Park, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and of Physics at Harvard University (United States); Martin Quack, Professor of Physical Chemistry at ETH Zurich (Switzerland), and Sandip Tiwari, Charles N. Mellowes Professor in Engineering at Cornell University (United States).

The BBVA Foundation promotes scientific research of excellence by funding research projects, disseminating the results to society through diverse channels including symposia, workshops, lectures, publications and exhibitions, and providing advanced training and research awards.

The Frontiers Awards honour fundamental disciplinary or supradisciplinary advances in a series of basic, natural, social and technological sciences. They seek to recognise and encourage world-class research and artistic creation, prizing contributions of broad impact for their originality and theoretical significance.

HARPS was designed and built by an international consortium of research institutes, led by the Observatoire de Genève (Switzerland) and including Observatoire de Haute-Provence (France), Physikalisches Institut der Universität Bern (Switzerland), the Service d'Aeronomie (CNRS, France), as well as ESO La Silla and ESO Garching.

The project team was directed by Michel Mayor (Principal Investigator), Didier Queloz (Mission Scientist), Francesco Pepe (Project Managers Consortium) and Gero Rupprecht (ESO representative).



Mathieu Isidro
ESO, Education and Public Outreach Department
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6222

About the Announcement



Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor at La Silla
Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor at La Silla