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Artist's conception of a planet covered with a global ocean. A new study finds that these water worlds could maintain stable climates and perhaps sustain life. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Eric Ford awarded New Initiatives grant from Kaufman Foundation

27 February 2024
Eric Ford

A team of researchers that includes Eric Ford, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics, has been selected to receive a New Initiatives grant from the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation—a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, which works to improve the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region.

The foundation awards grants to scientists at institutes of higher learning in Pennsylvania who are pursuing research that explores essential questions in biology, physics, and chemistry, or that crosses disciplinary boundaries. New Initiatives grants are awarded to encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations requiring expertise beyond that of any single researcher and taking a novel approach to the topic in question.

Ford, who is a co-hire of the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, was selected with his colleague Cullen Blake, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, for their project titled “Next-generation Techniques for Analyzing Precise Radial Velocity Data.”

Ford and Blake’s research groups will develop new methods of analyzing astronomical data with the long-term goal of identifying potentially Earth-like planets orbiting stars. Planets exert a subtle gravitational tug on the stars they orbit, which produces a tiny periodic shift in the star’s “radial velocity”—the velocity of the star as it moves toward or away from the Earth. Penn State’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds has built two of the world’s most advanced astronomical instruments for measuring radial velocities of nearby stars based on analyzing small changes in the colors of star light they observe. Recent advances in telescope technology may allow precise observations to detect potentially Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, but the Earth’s atmosphere and astrophysical processes in the stars limit the accuracy of such observations. The team will develop new algorithms that combine existing knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere with machine learning techniques to remove the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere more precisely, so as to better measure stellar radial velocities.

Ford’s research explores how planets form and evolve using techniques from both theory and observation, including theoretical modeling of planetary systems, techniques to observe and characterize exoplanets, statistical analyses of exoplanet observations, and improving the design of exoplanet surveys. He has collaborated with several leading exoplanet survey teams, including NASA’s Kepler mission the Habitable Zone Planet Finder, and NEID science teams. At Penn State, he is the director of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds and a member of the Center for Astrostatistics, the Astrobiology Research Center, and the Consortium for Planetary and Exoplanetary Sciences and Technology.

Ford’s honors and awards include being named a Simons Fellow in Theoretical Physics by the Simons Foundation in 2020, being selected as a finalist for the Blavatnik Award in Physical Sciences & Engineering In 2015, and receiving the Helen B. Warner Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 2012 and the Harold C. Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Science in 2011. His research has been published in scientific journals such as Science, Nature, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Astronomical Journal, and the Astrophysical Journal.

Prior to joining Penn State in 2013, Ford was a faculty member at the University of Florida from 2007 to 2013, a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and a Miller Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics at MIT in 1999 and a doctoral degree in astrophysical sciences at Princeton in 2003.

Media Contacts
Eric B. Ford
Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Gail McCormick
Science Writer