“Astronomy Nobel Prize” goes to Vietnam-born professor
VietNamNet Bridge – In late May, in Hong Kong, the Shaw Foundation called names of the winners of the Shaw Award for Astronomy 2012, Ms. Le Hang - a Vietnam-origin professor.

Prof. Le Hang and her teacher, Prof. David C. Jewitt, director of the Institute for Planets and Exoplanets, University of California – Los Angeles, won the award for their discovery and characterization of trans-Neptunian bodies, an archeological treasure dating back to the formation of the solar system and the long-sought source of short period comets.

The Shaw Award in Astronomy is considered as the “Nobel Prize of Asia”. Established under the auspices of Mr Run Run Shaw in November 2002, the prize honors individuals, regardless of race, nationality and religious belief, who have achieved significant breakthrough in academic and scientific research or application and whose work has resulted in a positive and profound impact on mankind.

The Shaw Prize consists of three annual prizes: Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences, each bearing a monetary award of one million US dollars.

In March 2012, the Oslo-based Kavli Foundation announced the names of seven scientists as the winners of the Kavli Prize 2012 for three modern research fields: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Prof. Luu Le Hang, a Vietnamese American astronomer, is one of the winners.

The Kavli Prize was initiated in 2008 by a Norwaygian scientist, Fred Kavli, and his Kavli Foundation. A council of international experts from various scientific institutes in the world will select the winners. The $1 million prize for each field will be shared equally to co-winners.

The winners of Kavli Prize 2012.

The Kavli Prize in Astronomy is called the “Nobel Prize for Astronomy” of the world. This year, it was given to David C. Jewitt from the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), Jane X. Luu (Luu Le Hang), from Lincoln Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Michael E. Brown from the California Technology Institute (Caltech).

They received the prize "for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system."

David Jewitt and Luu Le Hang spent six years making observations of the outer solar system. Then in 1992 they spotted the first known object in the Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune's orbit which is distant from the Sun by between 30 and 50 times the Earth-Sun distance. Since then they and others have identified more than 1,000 Kuiper Belt objects. Astronomers are particularly interested in these KBO's because their composition may be close to the primordial material that coalesced around the Sun during the formation of the solar system.

Kuiper Belt Objects. Artwork of two icy dwarf planets orbiting within the Kuiper Belt
 of the outer solar system. The Sun is at upper left. The Kuiper Belt consists of
a numerous collection of small icy bodies that mostly orbit beyond the planets,
but in the same plane as them. The Kuiper Belt extends outwards from the orbit
 of Neptune at 30 AU (an AU is the Earth-Sun distance) past the orbit of Pluto out to about 50 AU.

Jewitt and Luu share the 2012 Kavli prize for astrophysics with Michael Brown, who followed in their footsteps and searched the Kuiper Belt for planet-sized bodies. In 2005 he found Eris, an object about the same size as Pluto but with 27% more mass. As a result astronomers had to rethink what it is to be a "planet." The subsequent relegation of Pluto to "dwarf planet" status became worldwide news.

Prof. Luu Le Hang was born in Vietnam in 1963. She left Vietnam to the US in 1975. Since 2001, she has been a member of the technical staff at Lincoln Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Stanford University in 1984 and a PhD in Planetary Astronomy from MIT in 1990.  In the years 1990 to 1994, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at various institutions, namely, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, UC Berkeley and Stanford University.  She was appointed Assistant Professor at Harvard University in 1994 and Professor at Leiden University, the Netherlands in 1998.  

In 1991, the American Astronomy Association presented Hang the Annie J. Cannon Award. To recognize her contribution to discover over 30 asteroids, an asteroid is named after Luu Le Hang – 5430 Luu. This year the Vietnam-born woman won the two most honorable astronomy awards in the world.

Compiled by S. Tung