Keck Observatory Astronomer Wins Major Prize

UCLA professor and longtime W. M. Keck Observatory astronomer, Andrea Ghez will be awarded the 2015 Bakerian Medal, the Royal Society’s premiere prize lecture in the physical sciences, the organization announced this week.

“I’m thrilled to receive the Bakerian Medal from the Royal Society,” said Ghez, who is UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics. “The research that is being recognized is the product of a wonderful collaboration among the scientists in the UCLA Galactic Center Group and the University of California’s tremendous investment in the W. M. Keck Observatory. Having cutting-edge tools and a great team makes discovery easy.”

The medal is accompanied by a cash prize of 10,000 pounds (approximately $15,500), and Ghez will deliver the Bakerian Lecture in London in November. The organization, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, cited Ghez’s “acclaimed discoveries using the techniques of optical astronomy, especially her sustained work on the motions and nature of the stars orbiting the black hole in the centre of our Galaxy.”

"All the data for this project came from Keck Observatory," Ghez said. "We were able to launch this project 20 years ago because of the unique way that Keck Observatory works. We were able to modify instrumentation and try new approaches to data collection in a way that simply isn't possible at other observatories. Working at Keck Observatory and with the staff there has been an amazing experience."

Since 1995, Ghez has used the Keck Observatory, which sits near the summit of Hawaii's dormant volcano Maunakea, to study the rotational center of the Milky Way and the movement of thousands of stars close to this galactic center. Keck Observatory operates the two largest and most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. 

Ghez, a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, uses novel, ground-based telescopic techniques to remove the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere, making the sharpest possible images of the center of our galaxy.

By measuring the orbits of stars at the center of our galaxy, she showed that a monstrous black hole resides at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, some 26,000 light-years away from Earth, with a mass 4 million times that of the sun. The finding provided the best evidence yet that supermassive black holes exist in our universe. Ghez and her research team have revealed many unexpected mysteries about the role that black holes play in the formation and evolution of galaxies.