Past Member Awarded Kavli Prize for Searching for Life Beyond Earth

Sara Seager, Long-Term Member (1999–2002) in the School of Natural Sciences, has been announced as one of the winners of the 2024 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. Seager was presented with the award alongside David Charbonneau of Harvard University for “ground-breaking work” on the discovery and characterization of extra-solar planets, also known as exoplanets, and their atmospheres.

Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. Such planets are numerous: the Milky Way may contain more than 100 billion, yet the closest known exoplanet to Earth (Proxima Centauri b) is over 4 light-years away. Exoplanets exhibit an incredible diversity: some can be described as gas giants, many of which are larger than Jupiter, and others are rocky planets akin to Earth. The study of exoplanets helps to answer profound questions about the potential for life elsewhere in the universe and provides insights into how planetary systems like our own form and evolve.

Seager and Charbonneau were praised by the Kavli Prize committee for having “pioneered methods for the detection of atomic species in the planetary atmospheres” of these exoplanets. The citation continues: “This sets the stage for finding the molecular fingerprints of atmospheres around both giant and rocky planets. The next big step lies in detecting molecular biosignatures—an endeavor involving significant technical challenges. Seager and Charbonneau have led the field also in this respect, developing innovative instrumentation concepts, the basis of progress in current and future exoplanet science.”

Seager currently serves as the Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. 

Since 2008, the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics has been awarded in recognition of “outstanding achievement in advancing our knowledge and understanding of the origin, evolution, and properties of the universe.” Past IAS recipients of the Prize include Roger Ulrich, Member (1975) in the School of Natural Sciences, for his “pioneering work in the development of helioseismology and asteroseismology.” Ewine van Dishoeck, Visitor (1984–88) in the School of Natural Sciences and IAS Academic Trustee (2018–23), was recognized in 2018 for her combined contributions to observational, theoretical, and laboratory astrochemistry.

See more at the Kavli Prize.