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The Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2019

The Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2019

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The Shaw Prize was established in 2002. It consists of three annual prizes: Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences. It honours individuals who have recently achieved significant breakthrough in academic and scientific research or applications and whose work has resulted in a positive and profound impact on mankind.

The Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2019 is awarded to Edward C Stone for his leadership in the Voyager project, which has, over the past four decades, transformed our understanding of the four giant planets and the outer solar system, and has now begun to explore interstellar space.


Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Edward C Stone

Edward C Stone was born in 1936 in Knoxville, Iowa, USA and is currently David Morrisroe Professor of Physics and Vice Provost for Special Projects at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), USA. He obtained his Master degree and his PhD in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1959 and 1964 respectively. He then joined Caltech, where he was successively Research Fellow (1964–1966), Senior Research Fellow (1966–1967), Assistant Professor (1967–1971), Associate Professor (1971–1976) and Professor (1976–1994). Since 1994, he has been appointed David Morrisroe Professor and has served as Vice Provost for Special Projects from 2004. At Caltech, he was also appointed Chairman of Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy from 1983 to 1988, Vice President for Astronomical Facilities (1988–1990) and Vice President and Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (1991–2001). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Photo credit: NASA/JPL Voyager

The Voyager project is a NASA mission for exploring the outer planets. It consists of two spacecraft Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977. Having accomplished the primary mission to study Jupiter and Saturn close-up, Voyager 2 also visited Uranus and Neptune. Subsequently, both spacecraft headed away from the solar system and have now entered interstellar space. Voyager 1 also becomes the most distant human artefact now.

The Voyagers dramatically improved our understanding on many aspects of the giant planets, including their masses, shapes, atmospheres, rings and gravitational fields. We learnt much more about the many satellites of the giant planets, and 22 new satellites were discovered. For the foreseeable future, Voyager 2 will remain the only spacecraft visiting Uranus and Neptune. These unique data collected are important for the study of exoplanets, since Uranus and Neptune now appear to be more representative of the bulk of the exoplanet population than the other solar system planets.


Important Dates

  Voyager 1 Voyager 2
Launch 5.9.1977 20.8.1977
Jupiter flyby 5.3.1979 9.7.1979
Saturn flyby 9.11.1980 25.8.1981
Uranus flyby N/A 24.1.1986
Neptune flyby N/A 25.8.1989
Family portrait of the solar system 14.2.1990 N/A
Entry to interstellar space 25.8.2012 5.11.2018

Distance from Earth in 2019

Voyager 1 145 AU
Voyager 2 120 AU

(One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth)

Photo credit: NASA/JPL

Although Voyager 1 was launched later than Voyager 2, its path allowed it to reach Jupiter earlier than Voyager 2 and so it was called Voyager 1.

Volcanic plume on Io
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
Active volcanoes beyond Earth were first seen by Voyager 1, on Jupiter's satellite Io. Today, we know Io has hundreds of volcanoes and is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. The active geology results from the tidal heating of Io's interior by the tidal forces of Jupiter together with the gravitational pull from Europa and Ganymede.
Great Red Spot on Jupiter
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
The Voyagers took the first high-resolution images of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot, a storm with approximately two times the size of Earth that has existed for about 300 years. Smaller turbulence structures and vortices were also revealed clearly in the images.
Saturn's rings
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
Saturn's rings are not whole discs but composed of particles with different sizes. They are mainly made of water ice with a few impurities. Different impurities may give rise to the slight colour difference in the rings. The Voyagers also discovered that the rings have various complex structures.
Titan covered by a thick atmosphere
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
The Voyagers made the first detailed measurement of the atmosphere of Saturn's satellite Titan. Its atmosphere is mainly composed of nitrogen with traces of methane. Titan is the only satellite in the solar system that has a substantial atmosphere.

Voyager discovered that the magnetic axes of Uranus and Neptune are greatly tilted from their rotational axes and largely offset from the centres. We can imagine that a compass on these two planets will no longer point to the north poles.

Photo credit: NASA/JPL

Voyager observed that Neptune had a vast storm system: the Great Dark Spot. Its size was as large as Earth, and the wind speed was up to 2000 km/h near the storm. Neptune is the windiest place in the solar system.

Voyager 1 took the ‘family portrait' of solar-system planets from a distance 6 billion km from the Sun. The image of Earth has come to be called the ‘pale blue dot', which has become an icon for how small we are in the larger universe.

Family portrait of solar-system planets
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
The family portrait of solar-system planets is a composed composite of 60 frames. Mercury was not seen as it was too close to the Sun. Mars was not detectable due to scattered sunlight in the optics in the camera. The images of planets in the insets are enlarged.
Our Earth, known as the ‘pale blue dot'
Photo credit: NASA/JPL
Our Earth, known as the ‘pale blue dot', in the family portrait of solar-system planets. The light in the background is due to the scattered sunlight in the optics of the camera.
Location of heliosphere and interstellar space
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The solar wind of ionised gas emitted by the Sun forms a bubble-like region called the heliosphere that surrounds the planets in the solar system. The place where the solar wind is halted by the pressure from interstellar gas is the edge of the heliosphere, or heliopause, beyond which is interstellar space. Voyagers have flown beyond the heliopause and entered interstellar space. They are now returning data of the velocity, density and temperature etc. of the ambient plasma in interstellar space.
Graph showing frequency of sounds or vibrations of the dense plasma
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Iowa
Voyager 1 captured the sounds or vibrations of the dense plasma in interstellar space. The frequency of the sound indicates the density of the plasma.
Please  click to hear the sounds
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each Voyager carries a "golden record", a phonograph record which contains spoken greetings in 55 languages, a selection of natural sounds (such as wind blowing), music as well as images to reflect the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It will only be played if Voyager is encountered by an advanced spacefaring civilisation.

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