3-Minute Interview: Michael Fitzgerald 

The San Francisco resident and researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a member of one of two astronomy teams awarded the Newcomb Cleveland Prize by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for making the first direct detection of an extrasolar planet.

How was the planet first detected? This star, Fomalhaut, is a pretty bright star in the southern hemisphere — the brightest in the constellation Piscis Asutrinus. It was originally found to be special back in 1983, when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite discovered its infrared emissions were way brighter than you’d expect them to be.

What did that mean? It was bright because it has a lot of circumstellar dust — dust in orbit around the star, which heats up and radiates its own light. It was one of several that were discovered with this pattern.

How did you finally see the planet? My collaborators used the Hubble Telescope to take a very detailed picture of this dustring around Fomalhaut, and it showed the ring was not only offset from the star, but the inner edge was sculpted. We found a faint point of light that seemed to be following with the star but also showed a little bit of orbital motion. It looked like the culprit of offsetting and sculpting the ring.

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Katie Worth

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