“Right now, there are so many unknowns and so much potential. So many great people are working on collaborative, open-access science—setting the gold standard for the next decade and fueling a positive feedback loop.”

luis welbanks, ph.d.

As JWST churns out unprecedented data describing more than one new exoplanet a week, we enter a new era of exploration filled with untold promise. Luis Welbanks, Ph.D., bridges theory, models, and data to navigate this flood of information. Through his efforts to characterize exoplanet atmospheres, he not only synthesizes prevailing astronomical knowledge, but also establishes innovative techniques for testing the reliability of its conclusions.

While conducting the most extensive survey of exoplanetary atmospheres to date, Dr. Welbanks revealed the prevalence of water in exoplanetary atmospheres, reframing our understanding of planetary formation. He also introduced Leave-One-Out Cross-Validation (LOO-CV), a state-of-the-art method for measuring how well a model’s predictions match observed data.

As lead theorist on JWST’s Transiting Exoplanet Early Release Science Program, Dr. Welbanks orchestrated a large cadre of exoplanet scientists as they interpreted data obtained from the Saturn-sized planet, WASP-39b. He has unified comprehensive results from some of the most detailed exoplanet atmospheric studies, setting benchmarks for future observations.

Artist’s impression of exoplanet WASP-39b and its parent star, about 700 light-years away from Earth.

During his fellowship, Dr. Welbanks will leverage his LOO-CV framework and access to cutting-edge observations to delve into planetary climates, compositions, and formation pathways. He will investigate the potential to merge space-based technology with ground-based telescopes of the future, ensuring optimal instrumentation for detecting potential habitable planets. Dr. Welbanks’ work will illuminate the complex planetary conditions beyond our solar system, laying groundwork for the search for life elsewhere.

Dr. Welbanks received a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Cambridge in Fall 2021. Prior to starting his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, Dr. Welbanks will continue his work as a NASA Hubble Fellowship Sagan fellow at Arizona State University.

a person holding a glowing orb