Astrophysicist wins European Research Council award to assess how life may emerge on other planets

Posted on: 05 September 2023

Dr Luca Matrà has won a prestigious ERC Starting Grant valued at €1.5 million. He will use the funds to support a five-year research project aimed at understanding how exoplanets and exocomets can affect the presence of volatile molecules that could provide the potential building blocks of life on other Earth-like planets.

Astrophysicist wins European Research Council award to assess how life may emerge on other planets

ERC awards support investigator-driven, frontier research across all fields. They are won on the basis of scientific excellence, and support Principal Investigators in starting their own independent research teams or programmes. Dr Matrà’s ERC award follows his success in securing a prestigious Irish Research Council Laureate Award in 2022.

Prof. Luca Matra wearing glasses and a grey sweatshirt, with trees in the background

Dr Luca Matrà, from Trinity’s School of Physics, said:

“This ERC award is excellent news for fundamental research into the assembly of planetary systems around nearby young stars, as a first step to understanding the development of terrestrial planets such as those in our Solar System.

“I am honoured to receive this European grant and to expand our research group to advance our understanding of the formation of extrasolar planetary systems. This research will be enabled by Ireland’s access to cutting-edge telescopes at ESA/NASA and – since 2018 – European Southern Observatory. I am grateful to everyone around me for the incredible support, and to the Irish Research Council for prior funding to enable this exciting science.”

Dr Matrà’s project: E-BEANS – Exoplanets and Belts of Exocomets Around Nearby Stars

The conditions that decide whether life can develop on Earth-like exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) are set when these planets are young (more than 50 times younger than our Solar System). The presence of small “volatile molecules” in these forming planets is crucial, as these provide the potential building blocks of life-beginning chemistry.

Such volatiles might not exist in those planets because they form dry, close to their own star, where the temperatures are high, or for other reasons. The E-BEANS goal is to better understand how exoplanets and exocomets can affect the presence of volatiles on other Earth-like planets in the latest stages of their formation.

Prof. Luca Matra wearing dark clothes, standing on desert sand with a huge white telescope radar behind him, against a bright blue sky.

Belts of exocomets, like the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt in our own Solar system, lie in the cold outer reaches of planetary systems, and represent a reservoir of ice. Outer exoplanets resembling Neptune can interact through gravity with exocomets to send them inwards, effectively delivering volatiles to otherwise dry planets. Terrestrial (Earth-like) planets also continue their growth through giant impacts – massive collisions that can strip them of their atmospheres.

The E-BEANS project will study these processes to enable major steps forward by combining modelling work with new data from ground and space-based telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Dr Linda Doyle, Provost of Trinity, said: 

“Congratulations to Luca on securing funding for this fascinating project which seeks to address one of the most fundamental questions of all: how might life appear on other planets?  

“The ERC Starting Grant will help unlock huge potential as Luca can now establish a dedicated research group and lead a project which will have access to the most advanced observational facilities including ALMA and JWST. These promise to transform our understanding of the universe and enable leaps forward in fields such as astrophysics, astronomy, and cosmology.”

Professor Sinéad Ryan, Dean of Research at Trinity, added:

“This is a fantastic achievement and will position Luca and his research group as future international leaders in the field of exoplanetary science. These extremely competitive awards go to researchers who demonstrate creative, ‘blue skies’ thinking when it comes to building knowledge and solving problems in their respective fields and Luca is a very deserving recipient as he will take an ambitious and interdisciplinary approach to this work, combining the use of next-generation instrumentation with physico-chemical modelling.”

Since the inception of the ERC programme, over 60 ERC Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy grants have been won by Trinity researchers across all three Faculties and across 18 Schools.

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