Scott Sheppard studies the dynamical and physical properties of small bodies in our Solar System, such as asteroids, comets, moons and trans-neptunian objects (bodies that orbit beyond Neptune).  These objects have a fossilized imprint from the formation and migration of the major planets in our Solar System, which allow us to understand how the Solar System came to be.

The major planets in our Solar System travel around the Sun in fairly circular orbits and on similar planes. However, since the discovery of wildly varying planetary systems around other stars, and given our increased understanding about small, primordial bodies in our celestial neighborhood, the notion that our Solar System has always been so orderly is changing.

To understand solar system evolution in general and how ours came to be, Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism astronomer Scott Sheppard studies the dynamical and physical properties of small bodies, such as asteroids, comets, moons, trans-neptunian objects (bodies that orbit beyond Neptune), and free floating substellar objects. These small bodies in our Solar System have a fossilized imprint from the formation and migration of the major planets in our Solar System.

The known Solar System can be divided into three parts: the rocky planets like Earth, which are close to the Sun; the gas giant planets, which are further out; and the frozen objects of the Kuiper belt, which lie just beyond Neptune's orbit. Beyond this, there appears to be an edge to the Solar System where only one object, Sedna, was known to exist for its entire orbit until Sheppard and colleagues discovered a second object, dwarf planet 2012 VP113. It has a very eccentric orbit that is even more distant than Sedna. Sheppard has determined that the total population of these so called inner Oort cloud objects is likely bigger than the Kuiper Belt and main asteroid belt. Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or Earth.

There are several competing theories for how the inner Oort cloud might have formed, but all require the Solar System to have been in a state vastly different than now since the inner Oort cloud objects are currently decoupled from any known major planet, yet have disturbed inclined, eccentric orbits. Thus the inner Oort cloud is a window into our Solar System's past. Sheppard and colleague are currently obtaining the widest and deepest survey for Solar System objects ever obtained to discover more inner Oort cloud members.

Active asteroids have stable orbits between Mars and Jupiter like other asteroids. However, unlike other asteroids, they sometimes have the appearance of comets, when dust or gas is ejected from their surfaces. The reasons for this loss of material and subsequent tail in active asteroids are unknown, although there are several theories such as recent impacts or sublimation of exposed ices. Sheppard and colleagues discovered an unexpected tail on asteroid 62412, an object which had been known as a typical asteroid for over a decade. Using Magellan Telescopic observations, Sheppard found 62412 to have a very fast rotation. It thus appears the activity in this asteroid is created by rotational fissioning of material off the surface of 62412. Sheppard and colleagues estimate that there are likely about 100 active asteroids in the main asteroid belt, based on their discovery.

Sheppard is also the co-discoverer of the first trailing Neptune Trojan and first high inclination leading Neptune Trojan. Trojans are asteroids that are locked into the same orbital period as a planet but lead or follow the planet by about 60 degrees. At these spots, the gravitational pull of the planet and the Sun combine to lock the asteroids into synchronized orbits with the planet. The presence of high inclination Trojans implies that Neptune was on a much more eccentric orbit in the past. As Neptune went through the process of becoming more circular in orbit, it gained the ability to capture high-inclination objects. Sheppard has also learned that Neptune Trojans share many similarities with their Jupiter counterparts.

In another research area, Sheppard surveys our Solar System for so-called irregular satellites. These bodies have been captured by their respective planets. Regular satellites, on the other hand, were created during disk accretion. Sheppard and colleagues have discovered over 70 of the irregular moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. During the survey, Sheppard determined that the giant planets all possess about the same number of irregular satellites, despite large differences in planetary mass and formation scenarios.

Sheppard discovered the first contact binary Kuiper belt object. A contact binary contains two objects that are drawn together by tidal friction like the Earth and the Moon to orbit about one another. The large amount of angular momentum in the Kuiper Belt suggests it was much denser in the distant past. Similar observations by Sheppard and his colleagues also yielded one of the first measurements of the bulk density of a KBO; the value is sufficiently low that a volatile-rich, porous structure is indicated.

Sheppard received his B.A. in physics from Oberlin College and his M.S. and Ph. D. from the University of Hawaii, where he was also a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Before becoming a staff scientist at Carnegie in 2007, he was a Carnegie Hubble Fellow. For more see

Explore Carnegie Science

August 9, 2018

Washington, D.C.—Observatories NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow Maria Drout will receive the tenth Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence Award (PIE). These awards are made through nominations from the departments and are chosen by the Office of the President. The recipients are awarded a cash prize for their exceptionally creative approaches to science, strong mentoring, and contributing to the sense of campus community.

Maria Drout was one of four Carnegie astronomers who, along with colleagues from UC Santa Cruz, provided the first-ever glimpse of two neutron stars colliding last August. She was first author on a Science paper, which measured the changing light from that merger

August 2, 2018

Pasadena, CA—What happens when a star behaves like it exploded, but it’s still there?

About 170 years ago, astronomers witnessed a major outburst by Eta Carinae, the brightest known star in our Milky Way galaxy. The blast unleashed almost as much energy as a standard supernova explosion.

Yet, Eta Carinae survived.

An explanation for the eruption has eluded astrophysicists, but Carnegie telescopes played an important role in solving the mystery.

Researchers can’t t a time machine back to the mid-1800s to observe the outburst with modern technology. However, astronomers can use nature’s own “time machine,” courtesy of the fact that light travels at a finite

This artist’s impression shows the temperate planet Ross 128 b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background. It is provided courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser.
July 10, 2018

Pasadena, CA—Last autumn, the world was excited by the discovery of an exoplanet called Ross 128 b, which is just 11 light years away from Earth. New work from a team led by Diogo Souto of Brazil’s Observatório Nacional and including Carnegie’s Johanna Teske has for the first time determined detailed chemical abundances of the planet’s host star, Ross 128.

Understanding which elements are present in a star in what abundances can help researchers estimate the makeup of the exoplanets that orbit them, which can help predict how similar the planets are to the Earth.

“Until recently, it was difficult to obtain detailed chemical abundances for this kind of star,” said lead

An artist’s conception of a radio jet spewing out fast-moving material from the newly discovered quasar. Artwork by Robin Dienel, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.
July 9, 2018

Pasadena, CA—Carnegie’s Eduardo Bañados led a team that found a quasar with the brightest radio emission ever observed in the early universe, due to it spewing out a jet of extremely fast-moving material.

Bañados’ discovery was followed up by Emmanuel Momjian of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which allowed the team to see with unprecedented detail the jet shooting out of a quasar that formed within the universe’s first billion years of existence. 

The findings, published in two papers in The Astrophysical Journal, will allow astronomers to better probe the universe’s youth during an important period of transition to its current state.

Quasars are comprised

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The fund supports a postdoctoral fellowship in astronomy that rotates between the Carnegie Science departments of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C., and the Observatories in Pasadena California. 

The Earthbound Planet Search Program has discovered hundreds of planets orbiting nearby stars using telescopes at Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, the Anglo-Australian Observatory, Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory, and the ESO Paranal Observatory.  Our multi-national team has been collecting data for 30 years, using the Precision Doppler technique.  Highlights of this program include the detection of five of the first six exoplanets, the first eccentric planet, the first multiple planet system, the first sub-Saturn mass planet, the first sub-Neptune mass planet, the first terrestrial mass planet, and the first transit planet.Over the course of 30 years we have improved the

The Giant Magellan Telescope will be one member of the next class of super giant earth-based telescopes that promises to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. It will be constructed in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Commissioning of the telescope is scheduled to begin in 2021.

The GMT has a unique design that offers several advantages. It is a segmented mirror telescope that employs seven of today’s largest stiff monolith mirrors as segments. Six off-axis 8.4 meter or 27-foot segments surround a central on-axis segment, forming a single optical surface 24.5 meters, or 80 feet, in diameter with a total collecting area of 368 square meters. The GMT will

Along with Alycia Weinberger and Ian Thompson, Alan Boss has been running the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search (CAPS) program, which searches for extrasolar planets by the astrometric method, where the planet's presence is detected indirectly through the wobble of the host star around the center of mass of the system. With over eight years of CAPSCam data, they are beginning to see likely true astrometric wobbles beginning to appear. The CAPSCam planet search effort is on the verge of yielding a harvest of astrometrically discovered planets, as well as accurate parallactic distances to many young stars and M dwarfs. For more see

The Ludington lab investigates complex ecological dynamics from microbial community interactions using the fruit fly  Drosophila melanogaster. The fruit fly gut carries numerous microbial species, which can be cultured in the lab. The goal is to understand the gut ecology and how it relates to host health, among other questions, by taking advantage of the fast time-scale and ease of studying the fruit fly in controlled experiments. 

Nick Konidaris is a staff scientist at the Carnegie Observatories and Instrument Lead for the SDSS-V Local Volume Mapper (LVM). He works on a broad range of new optical instrumentation projects in astronomy and remote sensing. Nick's projects range from experimental to large workhorse facilities. On the experimental side, he recently began working on a new development platform for the 40-inch Swope telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory that will be used to explore and understand the explosive universe.

 Nick and his colleagues at the Department of Global Ecology are leveraging the work on Swope to develop a new airborne spectrograph that will be used to provide a direct

Experimental petrologist Michael Walter became director of the Geophysical Laboratory beginning April 1, 2018. His recent research has focused on the period early in Earth’s history, shortly after the planet accreted from the cloud of gas and dust surrounding our young Sun, when the mantle and the core first separated into distinct layers. Current topics of investigation also include the structure and properties of various compounds under the extreme pressures and temperatures found deep inside the planet, and information about the pressure, temperature, and chemical conditions of the mantle that can be gleaned from mineral impurities preserved inside diamonds.

Walter had been at

Guoyin Shen's research interests lie in the quest to establish and to examine models for explaining and controlling the behavior of materials under extreme conditions. His research activities include investigation of phase transformations and melting lines in molecular solids, oxides and metals; polyamorphism in liquids and amorphous materials; new states of matter and their emergent properties under extreme conditions; and the development of enabling high-pressure synchrotron techniques for advancing compression science. 

He obtained a Ph.D. in mineral physics from Uppsala University, Sweden in 1994 and a B.S. in geochemistry from Zhejiang University, China in 1982. For more