Florida Space Institute Planetary Scientist Estela Fernández-Valenzuela has been awarded a $315,700 NASA grant to use modern day technology to analyze one of the oldest and least understood objects of our solar system.

The first trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) — objects that orbit the Sun beyond Neptune — was discovered more than 25 years ago. Some of them have been discovered to have satellites, but because of their distance from Earth, direct imaging of TNOs is difficult. Scientists have relied on the Hubble Space Telescope for detection of their satellites, which is fantastic for discovery, but it is not nearly sensitive enough to discover satellites that are very close to the host body, says Fernández-Valenzuela.

The study of TNOs is important because it may provide clues about the formation of the solar system, which has implications for how life began on Earth.

The grant will allow Fernández-Valenzuela and her collaborators to look at data collected of TNOs and centaurs (TNOs that were injected to inner parts of the solar system and now are confined between Jupiter’s and Neptune’s orbits) and analyze them using a new star catalog being acquired through the European Space Agency’s GAIA mission. GAIA launched in 2013 with a goal of charting a 3D map of the Milky Way galaxy. With the data collected so far from GAIA, Fernández-Valenzuela will be able to calibrate TNO images already on file and generate a better understanding of these objects.

“Last year we published a letter in The Astrophysical Journal with the discovery of a close-in satellite in one of the most interesting knowns TNOs, Varuna,” she says. “Now, we want to make an important step forward and boost this discovery by analyzing a large sample of TNOs. If most TNOs turn out to be close binary systems (or systems with a prime body and a close satellite) with angular momentum close to the limit from which it will break apart, this will indicate that the collapsing clouds or the planetesimals that accreted to form these TNOs had vigorous rotation; this is quite relevant for the solar system formation models, providing constraints for the initial phases of the solar system formation.”

Since 2002, Fernández-Valenzuela and her colleagues in Spain have been compiling an extensive database with imaging observations of about 100 objects, including TNOs and centaurs. Most of these observations have been analyzed independently and results have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

GAIA will help to combine data across the years. The product of their research will allow them to compare and make a connection between the inner and outer parts of the solar system and will provide constraints to dynamical solar system models that attempt to explain how the system was formed. Therefore, the  work promises to not only provide results directly about objects in the outer solar system, but will benefit other areas of research such as theoretical modalization of the solar system formation and systems around other stars.

The team expects to begin working on the new project in January 2021 with work being conducted at FSI and facilities at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Spain.

Other collaborators on the project include Mario de Prá, a post doctoral scholar at FSI; Jose Luis Ortiz, a senior scientist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (IAA-CSIC) in Granada, Spain; and Álvaro Álvarez-Candal, IUFACyT, Universidad de Alicante in Alicante, Spain and the Observatório Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Colleagues say the grant is a recognition of Fernández-Valenzuela’s work. Since joining FSI in 2017, she has published nine articles and was awarded another highly competitive grant related to the James Webb Telescope. Only 28 people from across the nation were picked to organize and host workshops to guide scientists in the best way to prepare grant proposals to obtain time on the James Webb Telescope. Fernández-Valenzuela received the grant and hosted two sessions.

FSI Planetay Scientist Noemi Pinilla-Alonso said FSI supports early career scientist such as Fernández-Valenzuela and de Pra so they can progress in their careers and contribute to the field.

“For someone so early in her career, she’s doing some pretty incredible things,” says Pinilla-Alonso of Fernández-Valenzuela. “This award is just the confirmation of the leadership that Estela has shown at FSI. Estela has exceled in creating opportunities for UCF, including an observational project at the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most competitive telescopes in the world. Her research is certainly adding to our field, and I can’t wait to see what she will do during the length of her career.”

Fernández-Valenzuela has multiple degrees including a master’s degree from the University Complutense of Madrid in Spain and a doctorate from the University of Granada and Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (IAA-CSIC) in Granda, Spain.