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Thomas Henning receives ERC Advanced Grant worth 2.5 million Euros for research of young planetary systems

April 16, 2019

Thomas Henning, Director at MPIA and Head of the Planet- and Star Formation Department, has received one of the coveted ERC Advanced Grants worth 2.5 million euros. The project, entitled "From Planet-Forming Disks to Giant Planets", is the first one to systematically investigate the diverse properties of protoplanetary disks and the resulting planets and their atmospheres.
Near infrared image of the disk around the star PDS 70 (at center, masked out) taken with the SPHERE instrument at the ESO-VLT. The young exoplanet PDS 70b is clearly visible as the brightest point source. Zoom Image
Near infrared image of the disk around the star PDS 70 (at center, masked out) taken with the SPHERE instrument at the ESO-VLT. The young exoplanet PDS 70b is clearly visible as the brightest point source. [less]

Even before the first discovery of disks and planets around other stars, generations of researchers have assumed that planetary systems like our solar system were not an exception in the Universe. The idea that planetary systems are formed from protoplanetary disks around young stars has been supported by increasingly superior observations over the last three decades. However, direct observations of such disks and planets are extremely difficult not only because of the required high resolution, but in particular due to the large difference in brightness between the stars and their immediate environment. With new methods and highly developed instruments such as SPHERE at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory ESO and new observatories such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), images have been obtained during the last years which now even allow detailed studies. Thomas Henning and his colleagues were also part of this impressive development. It turned out that not only extrasolar planets show a great variety (e.g. in size, mass, composition and their atmospheres) but also that the disks are surprisingly diverse regarding their structures and dynamics - and, moreover, in their chemical composition.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Henning Zoom Image
Prof. Dr. Thomas Henning

The physics and chemistry of the disks should therefore be related to the properties of the exoplanets, but so far we have no systematic physical description of this connection. This is where Thomas Henning's project, now extensively funded by the ERC, comes in. With the help of detailed observations on disks and young planetary systems, complex simulations, and also laboratory experiments on dust/ice particles, the fundamental properties of the disks should be determined. Furthermore, the interaction between disks and planets and the time scales of planet formation will be investigated.

"The greatest challenge will probably be to establish a physical and chemical connection between the disk properties and the later atmospheres of the planets…," says Thomas Henning, "…especially since useful spectra of exoplanets and their atmospheres have reached limits of what is technically observable - even in the long term.

The European Research Council has now provided 2.5 million Euros for this project. The extensive funds will enable the establishment of a working group consisting of several doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, which will work closely with Professor Henning's MPIA department. The ERC offers various funding schemes within the framework of its programme and all funding applications must demonstrate the outstanding importance of the projects applied for and the excellence of the scientists involved.

Thomas Henning has been Director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg since 2001 and heads the Department of Planet- and Star Formation (PSF), whose name also aptly describes his main areas of work: he focuses on the observation and modelling of planetary disks around young stars, but also on the physical and chemical properties of the interstellar medium (gas and dust). Thomas Henning studied in Greifswald and Jena, where he still runs a laboratory astrophysics group as a branch of the MPIA. In addition, Thomas Henning was and currently is involved (partly in a leading role) in various instrumentation projects which - as can be seen impressively from the example of SPHERE - have decisively advanced the observation of exoplanets and the understanding of their formation.

 
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