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The fellowship provides exceptional scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational and experimental research in planetary astronomy.

Incoming CfA postdoc Shreyas Vissapragada has been awarded the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship.

Photo courtesy of Shreyas Vissapragada

Shreyas Vissapragada, a soon-to-be postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, has been awarded the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship from the Heising-Simons Foundation. Vissapragada is one of only eight students in the nation to receive this prestigious award.

The fellowship will provide up to $385,000 in support for Vissapragada to conduct independent research in planetary astronomy over the next three years at the Center for Astrophysics.

"I'm excited to work with cutting-edge observational facilities and experiment with new ideas that may eventually provide a comprehensive understanding of how planetary atmospheres evolve," Vissapragada says.

Vissapragada will earn a Ph.D. in in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology in the summer of 2022. From his inaugural run at Palomar Observatory to leading the launch of a unique observing mode on its telescopes, Vissapragada has forged new pathways in exoplanet research to determine the ways planets live out their lives.

"When [former 51 Pegasi b Fellow] Jessica Spake discovered helium in the outflow of a planet's atmosphere, I found that captivating," Vissapragada says. "I designed an observational technique to build on her approach, look at a broad sample of planets and scope in on the question of how they change over time."

Vissapragada applies an innovative method called ultra-narrowband photometry to examine exoplanets by taking highly precise measurements of helium in their outflowing atmospheres. The custom filter he designed and commissioned at Palomar Observatory allows for efficient inspections of gas-giant exoplanets and has yielded new insight into their stability against atmospheric loss.

Established in 2017, the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. The fellowship supports the growing field of planetary astronomy, which focuses on objects within and beyond our solar system. From improving the understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, to advancing new technologies for detecting other worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make a unique contribution to the field of astronomy.

During his fellowship at the CfA, Shreyas will pursue a two-pronged approach to understand how exoplanet atmospheres evolve over time. He will start by implementing the largest survey yet of escaping atmospheres focused on planets in and near the "Neptune desert," a missing population of sub-Saturn-sized planets orbiting close to their host stars.

"If you look at the planet population, its curious to note the missing chunk of Neptune-mass planets that orbit close to their stars," he says. "Atmospheric evolution may have something to do with their disappearance."

Next, Shreyas will develop new techniques to observe the escaping atmospheres of smaller planets. His meaningful analysis of diverse targets will help refine theories of planet formation, evolution and potentially habitability.

Learn more about the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship at www.51pegasib.org.

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About the Heising-Simons Foundation

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California. The Foundation works with its many partners to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people. Learn more at www.hsfoundation.org.