€1.5 million award to study birth of planets

An artist’s impression view of proto-planetary discs, the environment in which planets form. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Leicester astrophysics research which seeks to answer fundamental questions about the formation of planets has been awarded a major funding boost by the European Research Council (ERC).

Dr Giovanni Rosotti, STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow in the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, has been granted €1.5 million (£1.25 million) over the next five years to expand studies of proto-planetary discs, the mysterious environments in which planets form.

Thousands of exoplanets – planets outside of our Solar System – are known to astronomers, but scientists do not fully understand the processes at play which create the hugely diverse types of planets observed to date.

Dr Rosotti said: “To shed light on this and understand how planets form, we need to understand proto-planetary discs and what are the physical processes operating in them.

“We seek to rebuild the foundations of planetary formation through large observational surveys of proto-planetary discs and study of the evolution of their properties such as mass, radius, and the rate at which they build mass (mass accretion rate).”

These observations will then be used to expand existing models – or even help produce new ones – in order to help scientists to understand how planets are born.

While traditionally it was thought that proto-planetary discs are turbulent, there is now an intense theoretical debate among scientists whether this is indeed the case. In an alternative view, the magnetic field launches a ‘wind’ from the disc. These two views lead to many differences in the way planets grow, both of rocky terrestrial planets to much larger gas giants. 

Dr Giovanni is one of 397 early-career researchers from across Europe to have won a prestigious ERC Starting Grant. The selected proposals cover all disciplines of research, from the medical applications of artificial intelligence (AI), to the science of controlling matter by using light, to designing a legal regime for fair influencer marketing.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With this very first round of long-awaited grants, I am glad to see the European Research Council remaining a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme.

“I am looking forward to seeing what new breakthroughs and opportunities the new ERC laureates will bring, and how they will inspire young people to follow their curiosity and make discoveries for the benefit of us all.”

President of the European Research Council, Professor Maria Leptin, added: “Letting young talent thrive in Europe and go after their most innovative ideas - this is the best investment in our future, not least with the ever-growing competition globally. We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow. So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams. Some of them will be coming back from overseas, thanks to the ERC grants, to do science in Europe. We must continue to make sure Europe remains a scientific powerhouse.”