David Koch (left) and William Borucki.
Image credit: NASA The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is pleased to announce that the first Lancelot M. Berkeley - New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy is being awarded to William J. Borucki and David G. Koch of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Borucki and Koch (rhymes with "Bach") serve as principal investigator and deputy principal investigator, respectively, of the Kepler space mission, which - in the words of the prize committee's citation - "is discovering new exoplanets while making major advancements in the search for terrestrial planets around other stars." The two scientists will share $8,000 in prize money and have their expenses covered for travel to the upcoming 217th AAS meeting in Seattle, Washington, where they will jointly present the Lancelot Berkeley Prize Lecture on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011.
This prestigious new AAS prize was established in 2010 by the New York Community Trust, which administers the estate of Lancelot M. Berkeley, a New York lawyer and astronomy enthusiast. The Lancelot Berkeley Prize will be awarded annually for highly meritorious work in advancing the science of astronomy published in a peer-reviewed journal during the previous year. It is given without distinction as to nationality. Nominations were evaluated by a committee of three AAS vice-presidents and the editors in chief of the Astrophysical Journal and Astronomical Journal. The judges reported a "unanimous, wholehearted recommendation" that the 2011 Lancelot Berkeley Prize be awarded to Borucki and Koch "for the discovery of new worlds and for taking a major step in determining the extent of life in our galaxy."
Borucki earned a master's degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1962 and has been employed at NASA Ames ever since. He first worked on development of the heat shield for the Apollo command module. After the moon landings, he investigated lightning in planetary atmospheres and studied the effects of nitric oxides and chlorofluoromethanes on Earth's ozone layer. Eventually his interest turned to planets beyond our solar system, a field that has grown enormously since the first such objects were discovered around normal stars in 1995.
Koch earned his B.S. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his M.S. and Ph.D. at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has worked on scientific space instrumentation since the Apollo program and has participated in balloon-borne, airborne, and orbital science missions covering the spectrum from submillimeter and infrared radiation to X-rays and gamma rays. After Cornell he went to American Science and Engineering and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then to NASA/Ames in 1988.
In 1992 the two scientists began collaborating on what eventually became known as Kepler. The 0.95-meter-aperture (38-inch) space telescope was launched into Earth orbit on March 6, 2009, almost exactly 400 years after its namesake, German astronomer-mathematician Johannes Kepler, published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion in Astronomia Nova ("The New Astronomy"). Kepler is staring at more than 100,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus, the Swan, and Lyra, the Lyre, watching for tiny dips in brightness - telltale signs of planets transiting (crossing in front of) their faces. The "holy grail" of the 3.5-year (or longer) mission is to find Earth-like planets circling within the habitable zones around Sun-like stars.
The Kepler science team now includes dozens of scientists from research institutions all across the United States and in Canada and Europe. Borucki, Koch, and their colleagues announced their first Neptune- and Jupiter-mass exoplanet discoveries at the 215th AAS meeting in Washington, DC, last January, and in a paper published in the journal Science that same month. The entire April 20, 2010, issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters was devoted to Kepler results; six months later, Koch's paper in that issue was named by Thomson-Reuters ScienceWatch as the most cited space-science paper of the preceding 2 years as well as the most cited in all categories of emerging research fronts. More publications and discoveries have followed, including new insights into the behavior of some of the target stars, and astronomers are eagerly looking forward to the Seattle AAS meeting, where numerous Kepler presentations are scheduled.
AAS president Debra M. Elmegreen of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, informed Borucki and Koch of their selection as winners of the 2011 Lancelot Berkeley Prize. Borucki recalls, "When I got the call from Debra I felt a burst of joy and happiness that Dave and I were being recognized for developing the Kepler mission." He adds, "It's been a privilege to lead the team to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of other stars. The Kepler mission is a critical step in mankind's exploration of the Milky Way."
"It is a great honor to receive an award from the AAS," says Koch. "It has been 18 years since we started down the road to an operating Kepler mission, with all the hundreds of dedicated scientists, engineers, programmers, and managers, and it has been a fantastic journey. Finding habitable planets will surely serve as an inspiration for future generations to continue to explore the cosmos."
For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: