Montage of our solar system

High-tech methods to find planets around nearby stars are the focus of three graduate students selected to receive Michelson fellowships offered by NASA's Origins Program and its Space Interferometry Mission.

The fellowship program is named for Dr. Albert Michelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in physics. He is known as the father of interferometry, a technique that combines and processes light from multiple telescopes to obtain a clear image of distant objects.

Interferometry is an essential part of Origins, which includes several missions to study the formation of galaxies, stars, planets and life. The Michelson Fellowship Program is designed to develop expertise in interferometry.

"Judges on the independent panel had a hard time selecting the recipients," said Dr. Rudolf Danner of JPL, organizer of the fellowship program. "They were very impressed by the caliber of the applicants and the sophistication of their proposals, especially since they are beginning graduate students. These recipients offer the most promise in terms of technology development and science results they'll help us achieve."

Two of the recipients are graduate students at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Philip Hinz was selected for his work on building a new type of nulling interferometer. The instrument will block or "null" the glare from nearby stars so scientists can observe, in infrared wavelengths, the dust and giant planets that may orbit those stars. Erin Sabatke was chosen to work on creating models of large, stretched flat plastic membranes to collect light from several telescopes placed on separate spacecraft and flying in formation. He'll explore the use of this technique to photograph planets around other stars.

The third fellowship recipient, Benjamin Lane, is a student at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. His work will advance the technique of using two stars with a narrow angle separating them to measure relative motion of one with respect to the other, utilizing a ground-based interferometer. He'll apply this technique to search for planets around other stars being conducted at the Palomar Testbed Interferometer on Palomar Mountain near San Diego.

The fellowship, to be awarded annually, is offered for three years of graduate research at the host institution and covers tuition, a student stipend and a small budget for travel and other research expenses. The total cost is $90,000 per student. The application deadline for fellowships for the year 2000 is December 15, 1999. Information is available at the following website:

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages Origins for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC.

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