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Pössel, Markus
Markus Pössel
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In Search of the Origins of Life: Lisa Kaltenegger Receives $1 Million Award from Simons Foundation

August 01, 2013

Lisa Kaltenegger, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has been named as one of the investigators of the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. Dr. Kaltenegger is an expert on the potential habitability of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun) and on the chemical signatures that could allow for the detection of life on those planets. The Simons Foundation Investigator Award amounts to $1 million and will allow her to explore what the "chemical fingerprint" of an exoplanet's atmosphere could tell us about the planet's properties, including its habitability.

How life began is one of the great unsolved questions of our age. Now the Simons Foundation, based in New York City, has launched a collaborative effort to advance our understanding of how life began: The Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life will bring together researchers from fields as far apart as astrophysics and molecular biology to tackle questions as diverse as those about the astronomical context of the emergence of life on Earth and the chemical processes that produced the first self-replicating protocells.

The Simons Collaboration is co-chaired by Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak, a specialist on the emergence of cell-like, self-replicating structures from pre-life chemistry, and astronomer Dimiter Sasselov, Director of Harvard University's Origins of Life Initiative. It includes experts such as the British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and distinguished Harvard chemist George Whitesides.

Now, Lisa Kaltenegger has been named as one of the Collaboration's investigators. Kaltenegger, who holds a dual position as a DFG Emmy Noether research group leader of the "Super-Earths and Life" group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and as a research associate at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is a specialist for those exoplanets that are most interesting for the search for life on other worlds: earth-like, rocky planets with just the right characteristics to allow for the existence of liquid water – a precondition for life as we know it.

Kaltenegger will receive a Simons Foundation Investigator Award of $1 million on September 1, 2014. The award will enable her to study models for the "spectral fingerprints" of exoplanet atmospheres – the minute traces left by different chemical elements in those atmospheres in light received from those distant planetary systems. In modeling spectral fingerprints for earth-like planets, which are currently beyond the range of observation, and exploring the effect of living organisms, but also of different geological features on these spectral fingerprints, Kaltenegger will prepare the ground for future observations that might one day find life on those yet undiscovered worlds.

"This award is an amazing opportunity to explore the range of different worlds out there," Kaltenegger says: "With such a wide range of investigators from biology to astronomy, the Simons Collaboration offers a unique opportunity to learn more about other worlds and the origin of life – and it's exciting to be a part of that!"

Lisa Kaltenegger Zoom Image
Lisa Kaltenegger

Background information

Lisa Kaltenegger currently leads the DFG Emmy Noether research group on "Super-Earths and Life" at MPIA and is a research associate at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research focuses on rocky planets and super-Earths atmospheres in the habitable zone, as well as the spectral fingerprint of exoplanets that can be detected with the next generation of telescopes. Lisa Kaltenegger was names one of America's Young Innovators 2007 by Smithsonian Magazine, was selected as one of the European Commission's Role Models for Women in Science and Research and recently received the Heinz Meier Leibnitz Price for Physics of Germany in 2012 among several other awards.


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