PSI’s Kathryn Volk’s Dynamics Research Earns Vera Rubin Early Career Prize

Category: Press Release

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Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Kathryn “Kat” Volk was awarded the American Astronomical Society Division of Dynamical Astronomy’s Vera Rubin Early Career Prize for her work on both the dynamics of small bodies beyond Neptune, and the long-term dynamics and stability of tightly packed exoplanetary systems.

Volk gave a presentation and received the award at the 54th annual Division of Dynamical Astronomy meeting in Lansing, Michigan. The Vera Rubin Early Career Prize is named after Vera Rubin and recognizes excellence in Dynamical Astronomy. Recipients must have received their doctorate no more than 10 years prior.

“Receiving the DDA’s Rubin award is an incredible honor. I consider the DDA community my professional ‘home.’ It is my favorite meeting every year, and early in my graduate student career, it was attending DDA that really made me feel like part of the research community,” Volk said. “Being recognized by my peers for contributions to dynamical astronomy with the Rubin award has been the highlight of my career so far, and I look forward to continuing to contribute to the DDA.”

The award citation said: “Her numerous contributions span both Solar System and exoplanetary science, powerfully bringing together theory, numerics and observation. Orbital migration of the giant planets early in the Solar System’s history can explain various small-body populations in the outer Solar System. In particular, groups of trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) captured into different mean motion resonances with Neptune are natural consequences of the latter migrating outward, and close encounters with Neptune are thought to be responsible for the dynamically excited scattered disk.

“Dr. Volk has made fundamental contributions both to the observational characterization of these small-body populations through her core role in the Outer Solar System Origins Survey, as well as to rigorously confronting this theoretical picture of the early Solar System against observations through her extensive numerical investigations. Her work has been influential in quantifying the rates at which Jupiter-family comets are generated from their hypothesized source in the scattered disk beyond Neptune, and in characterizing the underlying resonant TNO populations as observational anchors for theories of the early Solar System.

“Dr. Volk has also significantly shaped the field of exoplanetary science. Her proposal that most planetary systems begin in compact configurations, which continually destabilize and rearrange throughout their lifetimes, has been highly influential, and she has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the long-term dynamical stability of exoplanetary systems. In particular, her work demonstrates that the future lifetimes of mature exoplanet systems are set by slow chaotic diffusion induced by the overlap of secular (rather than mean-motion) resonances.”

Volk’s presentation at the event was titled “Using distant small body populations to reveal the Solar System’s dynamical history.”

“Trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) are small, icy bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. We have observed a few thousand TNOs, and they have a complex orbital distribution that was sculpted by the formation and early rearrangement of the giant planets. Some of these distinctive TNOs were mixed into the more distant populations during Neptune’s migration to its current orbit,” Volk said.

“TNOs might have been detached from Neptune by forces external to the Solar System, for example, passing stars, by particularly large changes in Neptune’s orbit during migration – if Neptune had a strong gravitational encounter with another planet or many dwarf planets – or by ‘rogue’ planets that were ejected from the early Solar System” Volk said. “As we move into the era of new TNO discoveries with Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey in Space and Time (LSST), we will have better observational data to test models of the history of the outer Solar System.”

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 Kathryn “Kat” Volk. Credit: Emily Joseph.