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

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January 24, 2017

Pasadena, CA –The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) announces the appointment of physicist Robert N. Shelton to become its president, effective February 20, 2017. Shelton will lead the organization behind the development of the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is poised to be the world’s largest astronomical telescope when operational in the next decade.  Shelton will work closely with the GMTO Board of Directors, the leadership at the partner institutions, and the GMT team to complete construction of the observatory.

As a founding institution of the Giant Magellan Telescope, Carnegie President Matthew Scott remarked, “Robert Shelton is an ideal choice

November 16, 2016

Pasadena, CA – The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) today announced the appointment of Walter E. Massey, PhD, and Taft Armandroff, PhD, to the positions of Board Chair and Vice Chair, respectively. Continuing their involvement in new leadership capacities, Massey and Armandroff will guide the GMTO Board, overseeing the construction of the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in the Chilean Andes and working to complete the partnership of universities, research institutions and private donors who will contribute to the construction and operation of the GMT.

Poised to be the first of a new generation of extremely large telescopes, the GMT will be the largest optical

October 3, 2016

Pasadena, CA— A star known by the unassuming name of KIC 8462852 in the constellation Cygnus has been raising eyebrows both in and outside of the scientific community for the past year. In 2015 a team of astronomers announced that the star underwent a series of very brief, non-periodic dimming events while it was being monitored by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, and no one could quite figure out what caused them. A new study from Carnegie’s Josh Simon and Caltech’s Ben Montet has deepened the mystery.  

Simon and Montet’s findings caused a stir in August, when they were posted on a preprint server while their paper was being reviewed. Now their work is now accepted for publication

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, ESO, European Southern Observatory, M. Kornmesser
September 12, 2016

Pasadena, CA— Quasars are supermassive black holes that sit at the center of enormous galaxies, accreting matter. They shine so brightly that they are often referred to as beacons and are among the most-distant objects in the universe that we can currently study. New work from a team led by Carnegie’s Eduardo Bañados has discovered 63 new quasars from when the universe was only a billion years old. (It’s about 14 billion years old today.)

This is the largest sample of such distant quasars presented in a single scientific article, almost doubling the number of ancient quasars previously known. The findings will be published by The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

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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

Peter van Keken studies the thermal and chemical evolution of the Earth. In particularly he looks at the causes and consequences of plate tectonics; element modeling of mantle convection,  and the dynamics of subduction zones--locations where one tectonic plate slides under another. He also studies mantle plumes; the integration of geodynamics with seismology; geochemistry and mineral physics. He uses parallel computing and scientific visualization in this work.

He received his BS and Ph D from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Prior to joining Carnegie he was on the faculty of the University of Michigan.

Peter Driscoll studies the evolution of Earth’s core and magnetic field including magnetic pole reversal. Over the last 20 million or so years, the north and south magnetic poles on Earth have reversed about every 200,000, to 300,000 years and is now long overdue. He also investigates the Earth’s inner core structure; core-mantle coupling; tectonic-volatile cycling; orbital migration—how Earth’s orbit moves—and tidal dissipation—the dissipation of tidal forces between two closely orbiting bodies. He is also interested in planetary interiors, dynamos, upper planetary atmospheres and exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. He uses large-scale numerical simulations in much of his research

Andrew Newman works in several areas in extragalactic astronomy, including the distribution of dark matter--the mysterious, invisible  matter that makes up most of the universe--on galaxies, the evolution of the structure and dynamics of massive early galaxies including dwarf galaxies, ellipticals and cluster. He uses tools such as gravitational lensing, stellar dynamics, and stellar population synthesis from data gathered from the Magellan, Keck, Palomar, and Hubble telescopes.

Newman received his AB in physics and mathematics from the Washington University in St. Louis, and his MS and Ph D in astrophysics from Caltech. Before becomming a staff astronomer in 2015, he was a

Gwen Rudie studies the chemical and physical properties of very distant, so-called  high-redshift galaxies and their surrounding circumgalactic medium. She is primarily an observational astronomer working on the analysis and interpretation of high-resolution spectroscopy of high-redshift Quasi Stellar Objects and low to medium-resolution near-infrared and optical spectroscopy of high-redshift galaxies. She is interested in understanding the intergalactic medium as a tool for understanding galaxy evolution and the physical properties of very distant galaxies such as the composition of stars and their star formation rates

Rudie received her AB from Dartmouth College and her Ph D