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Past Winners

Christian Marois
Christian Marois

Astrophysics

National Research Council
David Lafrenière
David Lafrenière

Astrophysics

Université de Montréal
René Doyon
René Doyon

Astrophysics

Université de Montréal

2009 NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

Our vision of the universe now reaches further than ever before, thanks to breakthrough research by three Canadian astronomers. Christian Marois, astronomer at the National Research Council Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics; David Lafrenière, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto at the time of the discovery, now at the Université de Montréal; and René Doyon, professor of astrophysics at the Université de Montréal, have captured the first-ever image of a planetary system outside of our own solar system. This amazing accomplishment received international media attention and was ranked No 2 in Science magazine's "Most Important Scientific Breakthroughs of 2008" and No 6 in Time magazine's "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008." The team has also recently received the 2008-2009 Newcomb-Cleveland Prize for this milestone discovery, an annual prize awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for an outstanding publication in Science.

While astronomers have detected over 400 exoplanets since the discovery of 51 Pegasi in 1995, none have ever been imaged. The achievement of Drs. Doyon, Lafrenière and Marois ushers in the era of imaging exoplanets, an important step toward characterizing the diversity in the physical properties of planetary systems in the universe. Their development of methods for detecting faint extrasolar planets in the presence of the much brighter glare of light from a parent star has opened the door to imaging other distant regions of space in the search for additional planets. Astronomers can now use techniques similar to those pioneered by Drs. Marois, Lafrenière and Doyon to eliminate much of the glare of the central star's light and focus instead on the planets.

The team is hard at work plotting the future of exoplanetary imaging with a consortium of U.S. and Canadian institutions. They are assisting in the development of the Gemini Planet Imager, a specialized instrument scheduled for deployment at the Gemini South Observatory in 2011 that will take images and spectra of exoplanets with an unprecedented sensitivity.