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May 29, 2012 at 19:21 PM EDT
UCLA astronomy professor David Jewitt wins prestigious Shaw Prize
UCLA's David Jewitt has been awarded the $1 million Shaw Prize in astronomy for his role in the 1993 discovery of the more than 1 billion objects in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, once believed to be empty space, the Shaw Foundation announced today.
 
The 2012 astronomy prize was awarded jointly to Jewitt and MIT professor Jane Luu, who made the discovery together when Jewitt was a professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Luu was his graduate student.
 
Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy, directs UCLA's Institute for Planets and Exoplanets. His research focuses on the exploration of the small bodies of the solar system, which provide clues to the origin and evolution of planets. His discovery of the Kuiper Belt completely changed the modern perception of the solar system.
 
"It's a fantastic recognition of the work that Jane and I have done," Jewitt said of the prize. "It's completely amazing that a vast region of the solar system could have gone undiscovered for so long. It makes me wonder what else is out there."
 
The Shaw Foundation, established by Run Run Shaw, a Chinese media mogul in Hong Kong, awards the prize to honor significant breakthroughs in astronomy, life sciences and medicine.
 
"Prior to the detection of the first trans-Neptunian objects by Jewitt and Luu in 1993, little was known about the content of the solar system between the orbit of Neptune ... and the Oort cloud," the Shaw Prize's astronomy selection committee wrote. The committee named Jewitt and Luu laureates in astronomy to honor them "for their discovery and characterization of trans-Neptunian bodies, an archeological treasure dating back to the formation of the solar system ... They provide our best record of the early stages of planet formation."
 
The icy bodies are relics of the planet-formation phase of the solar system, Jewitt said. Scientists believe there are more than a billion objects in the Kuiper Belt that are more than a kilometer across, he said.
 
"People used to think that the outer solar system was empty, because it looked empty," he said. "Mostly, the objects were just too faint too see, and people weren't looking. It's the repository of the most primitive material in the solar system. This discovery is what led to Pluto falling from grace."
 
People weren't too happy with him about the demotion of Pluto from planetary to dwarf-planetary status, he said. "I had a death threat one time. But it doesn't make any difference for Pluto. It's just a fact."
 
Jewitt is also a member of UCLA's Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics. In addition to his roles at UCLA, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
 
Previous UCLA research by Jewitt:
 
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