Jonathan Fortney garners Simons Investigator in Astrophysics award

The $500,000 award from the Simons Foundation will support Fortney’s research on planetary atmospheres

Jonathan Fortney
Jonathan Fortney (Photo by C. Lagattuta)

The Simons Foundation has appointed Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, as a Simons Investigator in Astrophysics, providing $500,000 over five years to support his research.

The Simons Investigators program is intended to support outstanding theoretical scientists in their most productive years, when they are establishing creative new research directions, providing leadership to the field, and effectively mentoring junior scientists.

Fortney’s research focuses on understanding the atmospheres, interiors, and thermal evolution of planets, including exoplanets that orbit distant stars as well as the planets in our own solar system. He develops numerical models to explore many aspects of the physics of planets, from rocky worlds to gas giants. This work has provided a framework for understanding the atmospheres of exoplanets, their interior structure and thermal evolution, as well as physical processes like “helium rain” deep within Saturn.

Fortney often works closely with observers in interpreting the spectra of exoplanets to better understand their physics, chemistry, and clues to their formation. He directs the Other Worlds Laboratory (OWL), a UCSC research initiative that brings together researchers in several departments and features a unique summer visitors program.

Fortney is well known for his contributions to the understanding of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the so-called “hot Jupiter” exoplanets that orbit close to their host stars. He has also begun to broaden his research to include rocky terrestrial planets, as well as the cool, faint stars known as M stars.

“M stars are the most common stars in the sky, and some of the models we developed for hot planet atmospheres we can also apply to these cool stars,” Fortney said. “Some hot Jupiters are actually hotter than the coolest stars.”

The Simons Investigator funding will give him more time to focus on these new research directions.

“I have focused a lot on giant planets, and now my group is diversifying in both directions, looking at smaller planets as well as larger objects, the smallest stars,” Fortney said. “I’m trying to build a group that’s diverse in the sorts of problems we can tackle, and this award is very helpful to make that happen.”

With the deployment of new telescopes and instruments, such as the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers are looking forward to a wealth of new exoplanet observations.

“In this quest to understand the rapid influx of data, Jonathan Fortney’s technical skills and expertise are immeasurable assets to the community,” said Douglas N.C. Lin, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. “His versatility and breadth will enable him to grasp opportunities and embrace challenges brought forth by the anticipated and serendipitous discoveries.”

Each year, the Simons Foundation requests nominations from a targeted list of institutions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland for the Simons Investigator programs in mathematics, physics, astrophysics, and computer science. The Simons Investigators are appointed for an initial period of five years and receive research support of $100,000 per year.

Fortney was awarded the 2020 Paolo Farinella Prize from the Europlanet Society for his contributions to the understanding of giant planets, as well as the 2010 Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science from the American Astronomical Society. He earned his B.S. in physics at Iowa State University and Ph.D. in planetary science at the University of Arizona. He joined the UCSC faculty in 2008.