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First-Ever Images of Planets Orbiting Distant Stars Win the 2009 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, Supported by Affymetrix

Two breathtaking discoveries—the first-ever image of multiple planets orbiting a star other than our own, plus separate research that directly detected a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut—won the 2009 Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The Association’s oldest prize, now supported by Affymetrix, the Newcomb Cleveland Prize annually recognizes the author or authors of an outstanding paper published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of the journal Science between June and the following May.

A Science paper by Christian Marois and colleagues and another article directed by Paul Kalas will receive the AAAS prize for 2009. Both articles were originally published online 13 November 2008.

Researchers typically infer a planet’s presence—usually through its influence on a star—but the team headed by Marois imaged three planets directly using the Keck and Gemini North telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The star, HR 8799, is a “main sequence star,” in the prime of its life, fueled by nuclear reactions within its core, and it occurs 128 light years from Earth. The planets traveling around it have masses between five and 13 times that of Jupiter.

The system resembles a scaled-up version of the outer portion of our solar system, according to the authors, who estimate that if HR 8799 had been as faint as the sun, its planets would be at distances similar to those of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The second award-winning study by Kalas and colleagues used the Hubble Space Telescope to image a planet they called Fomalhaut b, orbiting its star, within a large dust belt. The researchers estimated that the planet’s mass is no greater than several times that of Jupiter.

“These two papers are landmark discoveries, as they report the first definitive, direct imaging of exoplanets: the planets that orbit distant stars,” Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts explained. “They result from remarkable technical advances in both imaging and data analysis, which make it possible to separate a planet from its host star. The results are likely to change our view of how planets originate. The ultimate goal is the direct imaging of Earth-like planets, so as to search for biosignature gases. This task will be very much harder, since such planets will not only be considerably smaller and dimmer, but also much closer to a sun-like star. Nevertheless, with this first giant step, it does not appear impossible.”

The Marois paper, “Direct Imaging of Multiple Planets Orbiting the Star HR 8799,” can be found online. The Kalas paper, “Optical Images of an Extra-Solar Planet 25 Light Years from Earth,” also is available online. (Please note that these articles are available without charge, but initial registration may be required.)

Honorable Mention—The 2008-2009 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize Committee also concluded that an Honorable Mention should be given to Etienne Munch and colleagues, whose 5 December 2008 Science paper described tough, bio-inspired hybrid materials.

Inspired by nature’s tricks for forming strong composites from otherwise weak starting materials, researchers have created their own extremely tough, layered material. Using an ice templating procedure, Munch’s team combined aluminum oxide and polymethyl methacrylate to make a composite with a high toughness and properties comparable to some aluminum alloys. This freeze-casting technique produces the layered materials with remarkable toughness against crack growth, similar to the toughening mechanisms found in some biological composites like nacre, also known as mother of pearl.

The article, “Tough, Bio-inspired Hybrid Materials,” can be read online.

The prize was established in 1923 with funds donated by Newcomb Cleveland of New York City and was originally called the AAAS Thousand Dollar Prize. It is now known as the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, and its value has been raised to $25,000. The winner also receives a bronze medal, complimentary registration and reimbursement for reasonable travel and hotel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting. Eligible Science papers include original research data, theory, or synthesis. They should represent a fundamental contribution to basic knowledge, or a technical achievement of far-reaching consequence. Winning nominations also should be a first-time publication of the author’s own work.

The 2008-2009 Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee included the Science Editor-in-Chief as well as John I. Brauman of Stanford University; Richard M. Losick of Harvard University;  Michael S. Turner of the University of Chicago; and AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science.

About Affymetrix

Affymetrix, Inc. added its support to the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize in 2003, helping to more than double the prize's monetary value. Affymetrix Founder and Executive Chairman Stephen P.A. Fodor, Ph.D., and his colleagues were awarded the Newcomb Cleveland Prize in 1991 for their landmark publication which first introduced microarray technology to the scientific community. (“Light-directed, spatially addressable parallel chemical synthesis,” with co-authors J. Read, M.C. Pirrung, L. Stryer, A.Lu, and D. Solas, Science, 15 February 1991.)

“Receiving the Newcomb Cleveland Award in 1991 was the first important public acknowledgment of our invention,” says Fodor. “Today, the award remains one of our most valued. Affymetrix is thrilled to support its continued legacy. It is important to recognize and encourage the innovative work of new scientists as their work will become the foundation for future research and discovery.”

Affymetrix is a pioneer in creating breakthrough tools that are driving the genomic revolution. By applying the principles of semiconductor technology to the life sciences, Affymetrix develops and commercializes systems that enable scientists to improve quality of life. The Company's customers include pharmaceutical, biotechnology, agrichemical, diagnostics, and consumer products companies as well as academic, government, and other non-profit research institutes. Affymetrix offers an expanding portfolio of integrated products and services to address growing markets focused on understanding the relationship between genes and human health. Affymetrix has about 1000 employees worldwide.

Read more about AAAS awards.


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs