2011 Moseley Medal and Prize

Dr Giovanna Tinetti

University College London

For her work, pioneering the use of infrared, primary transit spectroscopy to characterise the molecular composition of extra solar planets.

The discovery of over 550 extrasolar planets in the last decade or so represents a paradigm shift in astrophysics. Giovanna Tinetti has spearheaded the work of characterizing the exoplanets, which represents the next major advance in this new field. She has played a crucial role in planning and interpreting the observations that have, for the first time, given us real insights into the molecular composition of exoplanets. This work has concerned some of the most unusual exoplanets so far discovered – the class known as Hot Jupiters. 

In particular, she played a key role in establishing the idea of studying the infrared radiation blocked by a planet passing in front of its star (as viewed from earth) as means to perform molecular spectroscopy. This infrared, primary transit spectroscopy has proved much more powerful than the commonly adopted secondary technique.

In three key papers which make use of data from the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, Tinetti and others showed that water, methane and carbon dioxide indeed exist on these planets and their presence can be measured quantitatively in their atmospheres.

All this work, and more recent studies using ground based telescopes, relies on Tinetti’s expertise in planetary and spectral simulations as well has her ability to interpret data taken with telescopes not really designed for this purpose. This work is now driving the whole subject forward, with new space missions being planned explicitly to build on the use of infrared, primary transit spectroscopy. In particular she is playing a leading role in pushing the novel EChO space telescope to do systematic transit observations.