Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize for Lisa Kaltenegger

Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has been honoured for her work on exoplanets

May 25, 2012

The number of alien worlds has increased dramatically in recent years; researchers now know of more than 750 exoplanets. Could life exist on one of them? Lisa Kaltenegger from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg uses a computer to simulate the atmospheres of such celestial bodies - those already discovered, and those which are theoretically possible. From this she derives fingerprints that can be observed with the aid of telescopes, and which could reveal a second Earth. Her work has now earned her the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize of the German Research Foundation, which is worth 16,000 euros.

Lisa Kaltenegger, born 1977 in Kuchl near Salzburg, discovered her love for astronomy in her youth. “We had a marvellous physics teacher,” she recently said in an interview. She completed her A-levels in 1995 - the very year that the first exoplanet was discovered. She then went on to study technical physics and astronomy in Graz, and after several stops en route arrived at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg in 2010 as the leader of an  Emmy Noether group. Kaltenegger, who speaks six languages, is also a Research Associate at the renowned Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The search for extra-solar planets is deemed to be one of the most exciting areas of astronomy. More than 750 alien worlds are known so far and most of them are gas planets (“hot Jupiters”) which orbit very close to their star, and whose mass and size make them easier to detect than the smaller, rocky planets. Could conditions like those on Earth prevail on these celestial bodies, with water and temperatures above freezing? Could life even exist on them?

Lisa Kaltenegger uses a computer to research the spectral fingerprints in the atmospheres of extra-solar terrestrial planets which provide crucial indications for potential traces of life. The objective of these simulations is to find indications of water, oxygen and other gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as the combination of oxygen with a reducing gas (such as methane) is considered to be proof of biological activity on a planet. Extra-solar rocky planets could also exhibit completely different spectra, however, because they are in a different state of development, for example.

Lisa Kaltenegger’s group simulates this diversity on the computer by combining geology and astronomy. The scientists model the corresponding spectral fingerprints for a specific (possibly fictitious) planet between one and ten terrestrial masses each time, and in a second step analyse them for traces of life. The signatures found in the process provide indications as to what the astronomers could observe with their sophisticated instruments - if they were to detect a second Earth supporting life some day.


The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize has been awarded to young scientists since 1977 in recognition of outstanding achievements. Each prize is worth 16,000 euros and is intended to support the award-winners in further pursuing their academic career. A total of 125 candidates from all disciplines were put forward for the 2012 Prizes. Three female and three male researchers were ultimately awarded the Prize. The Prize is named after the physicist and former President of the German Research Foundation (DFG), Heinz Maier-Leibnitz.


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