The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship to Jonathan Fortney, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

The prestigious two-year fellowship includes a grant of $50,000 to support Fortney's research, which focuses on understanding the atmospheres and internal structures of planets. The Sloan Research Fellowships seek to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise. Fortney is among 118 researchers awarded the fellowships this year in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their fields.

A theoretical astrophysicist, Fortney uses computer modeling techniques to interpret observations of planets outside our solar system (known as extrasolar planets or exoplanets). He and his colleagues search for the signatures of molecules like water and methane in the atmospheres of these planets. Another focus of his research is the thermal evolution of the solar system's giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn.

Over 400 extrasolar planets have been detected, and Fortney's work makes connections between these distant planets, which astronomers are just beginning to understand, and the planets of our solar system, for which there is a long history of research. Fortney is a member of the science team for NASA's Kepler Mission, which is searching for Earth-like planets using a specially designed space telescope. His role in the mission is to help understand the structure and other properties of planets detected by the telescope.

"The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to measure the frequency of Earth-size planets in Earth-like orbits around Sun-like stars. This may be the most important number in the history of astronomy," Fortney said.

Fortney earned a B.S. in physics from Iowa State University and Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona. He joined the UCSC faculty in 2008.

The Sloan Research Fellowships have been awarded since 1955. Fellows are free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry are of most interest to them, and they are permitted to employ fellowship funds in a wide variety of ways to further their research aims.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grantmaking institution that supports original research and broad-based education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economic performance.