Postdoctoral fellowships support planetary science research

Brittany Miles and Paul Dalba have won 51 Pegasi b Fellowships to support their research on exoplanets and brown dwarfs

Brittany Miles
Brittany Miles
Paul Dalba
Paul Dalba

The Heising-Simons Foundation has awarded 51 Pegasi b Fellowships to Brittany Miles and Paul Dalba to support their postdoctoral research in planetary astronomy.

Miles is currently a Ph.D. candidate in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and will conduct her postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona. Dalba is currently at UC Riverside and will begin his postdoctoral fellowship at UC Santa Cruz in fall 2022.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowships provide exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy.

Brittany Miles

As a UCSC graduate student, Miles has been working with Andrew Skemer, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, to conduct mid-infrared observations of brown dwarfs—astronomical objects that share properties with both planets and stars. By placing unique constraints on the atmospheric structures of these cold objects, her work provides a template for predicting and interpreting future direct images of cooler exoplanets. Her brown dwarf observations also inform instrumentation projects in which she retrofits and tests detector capabilities to support more precise characterization of exoplanets.

In her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona, Miles will continue her observations of brown dwarf atmospheres to obtain data on cloud composition and behavior. As co-principal investigator on a James Webb Space Telescope proposal, she will explore the coldest known brown dwarf to inspect possible water clouds and water vapor and infer how such features may behave on gas giant exoplanets. Miles also plans to enhance the sensitivity of ground-based instruments to capture images of more Earth-like planets. Her work will be instrumental to the field as more large telescopes come online in the years ahead.

“I’d like to continue getting high-quality data on single targets to understand what gases are in the atmospheres of brown dwarfs, and answer bigger questions about how planets form and what their atmospheres look like,” Miles said. “No matter what my project results are, I think they will provide the community with a useful data set on what brown dwarfs and directly imaged exoplanets look like.”

Paul Dalba

Dalba works at the overlap of theory and observation, studying exoplanets akin to Jupiter and Saturn that orbit their host stars over long time periods. He leads the Giant Outer Transiting Exoplanet Mass Survey (GOT ’EM), a program at the W. M. Keck Observatory and UC’s Lick Observatory to determine the masses of his targets. He also coordinates intercontinental campaigns that enlist community scientists in days-long observations of exoplanets slowly passing in front of their host stars. Dalba’s efforts to characterize relatively unexplored worlds expand the boundaries of observable objects and place our solar system in sharper perspective.

In his fellowship at UC Santa Cruz, Dalba will advance his GOT ’EM findings to characterize a valuable set of giant exoplanets. After calculating the mass of each planet, he will investigate their metal compositions to tell a complete story about their interiors and atmospheres. This work will help answer essential questions about how planetary systems come to be and prepare a selection for examination with the James Webb Space Telescope. Dalba will also work with the SETI Institute to conduct exoplanet observations with the global Unistellar Network of community scientists.

“It’s important to understand exactly what giant planets are doing because they effectively control the rest of their environment,” he said. “If you can deduce the characteristics of these objects, that provides a full picture of the entire planetary system.”

Dalba earned his Ph.D. in astronomy at Boston University in fall 2018 and is currently working as an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Riverside.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship was established in 2017 by the Heising-Simons Foundation, and named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. Miles and Dalba are among eight awardees to receive 2022 fellowships, which provide up to $385,000 of support for independent research over three years.

The growing field of planetary astronomy studies objects both within and beyond our solar system, bridging planetary science and astronomy. From improving our understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, to advancing new technologies for detecting other worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make a unique contribution to the field.