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A Cosmic Year For UC Astrophysicist

Receiving a 2020 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship has capped a stellar year of success for University of Canterbury (UC) planetary astronomer, Dr Michele Bannister.

Conferred by New Zealand’s Royal Society Te Apārangi, Rutherford Discovery Fellowships are awarded to early-to mid-career researchers, supporting them in accelerating their research careers nationally.

Dr Bannister, who specialises in the discovery and exploration of small worlds in the Solar System and beyond, will receive $800,000 over five years to fund her research titled Emissaries from the darkness: understanding planetary systems through their smallest worlds.

She believes the populations of small worlds in the Solar System are key to understanding our history.

“Those that come from visiting distant stars, as interstellar objects, record the history of their own systems. The shape and surface compositions of our small worlds document their formation back more than four billion years when the Solar System was a disk of dust and gas,” Dr Bannister says.

“Few of the most distant, least-altered small worlds have been studied, and their past migrations are yet to be fully understood.”

A UC graduate, Dr Bannister returned to her alma mater in February 2020 to become a lecturer in astrophysics in the University of Canterbury’s Te Kura Matū | School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, after her time as a scholar at Queen's University Belfast, United Kingdom.

Dr Bannister has received international recognition for her work in 2020, despite the global pandemic stopping her from travelling overseas to collect her awards in person. Her central role in the design and management of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey, which discovered more than 800 trans-Neptunian objects over five years, was recognised earlier this year by the Royal Astronomical Society, with their 2020 Winton Award for Geophysics. This is the first time the RAS Winton Award has been awarded in Geophysics. (With international travel unavailable, the winners were due to accept their awards virtually at the RAS’ National Astronomy Meeting in July, however that has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“It’s an exciting time to be exploring the Solar System. Mapping out where these icy worlds now orbit the Sun helps unfold the past of our own corner of the Universe. It’s amazing to have the RAS recognise this teamwork of which I’ve been part, as we strive to understand how our own Solar System came to be the way that we see it today,” Dr Bannister says.

Aside from her excellent academic research, Dr Bannister is active in disseminating knowledge through high-profile outreach and media activities like her UC Connect public talk, Interstellar worlds: tiny arrivals from other stars, held at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus on 20 May 2020. Watch it here>

Dr Bannister was co-recipient of the Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Space Achievement — Academic Study/Research in November 2019, and Asteroid (10463) Bannister was named in her honour in 2017.

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