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Nienke van der Marel receives New Horizons Prize

Nienke van der Marel has been awarded the New Horizons Prize in physics for her pioneering research on planet formation. This prize is given to young, promising researchers in physics or mathematics. The astronomer and her colleagues found the first observational evidence for 'dust traps' in disks around young stars. This discovery and her further research have solved long-standing problems in planet formation. 'It is an incredible honour to receive this award. Especially at such a young age.'

Dust traps in the disks of young stars had already been predicted by computer models, but until 2013 no one had been able to observe them. Van der Marel changed that when she and her colleagues applied for observing time with the ALMA telescope during her PhD research. 'It was a coincidence that we made the discovery at the time. It was not what we expected when we applied for observing time with ALMA.'

The surprising discovery was the beginning of an extensive research career on planet formation. 'It's a great feeling that I was able to do such groundbreaking research during my PhD. Unexpected discoveries and new insights are the things that make research so special to me.'

An oeuvre award for work in the past few years

Also after her PhD research, Van der Marel continued to investigate dust traps. 'We started studying it in detail with both observations and in models. In my most recent research, I am looking at how the chemical composition of the disk changes due to dust traps. To do so, I am collaborating with astronomers from all over the world.'

Dust traps in the disks of young stars

Dust traps are regions in the disk where large dust particles are 'trapped'. In a disk without dust traps such dust particles would rapidly move inwards, and fall into the star, as a consequence of 'radial drift' due to interaction between gas and dust.

This is a big problem if you want to explain planet formation. The planet formation process starts with the coagulation of tiny dust particles (micrometers in size) to large dust particles (millimeters in size), but without a dust trap those would get lost, and cannot grow further to the size of a planet. A dust trap enables the concentration of large dust particles that can gradually continue to grow through collisions.

Van der Marel receives the award with three other researchers with whom she has collaborated extensively over the years: Paola Pinilla (University College London), Til Birnstiel (Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich) and Laura Perez (University of Chile). 'The prize is in fact a kind of oeuvre prize for our work over the past few years, from the moment of the first discovery until now.'

A physics prize for an astronomer

It is quite special for van der Marel and her colleagues to be awarded this prize. 'It is actually a physics prize. They rarely award them to astronomers. When they did, it was mainly for discoveries in the field of high-energy astrophysics where there are great interfaces between physics and astronomy. The fact that this prize was awarded to a piece of fundamental astronomy into the origin of planets is really unique.'

New Horizons in Physics Prize

The New Horizons in Physics prize 2024 is part of the Breakthrough prize initiative. Up to three of these prizes are awarded annually to promising early-stage researchers who have already produced important work.

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