While majoring in physics with a focus on particle physics as an undergraduate student, Maria Steinrueck encountered a team studying exoplanet atmospheres and recalled her own excitement, years earlier, when exoplanet winds were first measured. It was enough to change her course as a scholar and professional. Today, Maria examines how clouds and hazes impact a planet’s atmospheric circulation, temperatures, and transmission and emission spectra. Photochemical hazes, born of UV reactions with molecules such as methane, can significantly distort or mute the chemical signatures observed and used to characterize a planet. In a first for her field, Maria developed a three-dimensional climate model that predicts the location of photochemical hazes in the atmospheres of Hot Jupiters, the largest and most extensively described exoplanets to date.

During her fellowship, Maria will model 3D atmospheric circulation for a wide variety of exoplanets, determining how haze particles mix and move across different planetary conditions. Included in this exploration will be cooler, smaller planets closer in size to Neptune and Earth, which are increasingly observable through next-generation telescopes. Maria’s modeling will improve the accuracy of interpreting these observations, for a clearer picture of distant planets more like our own. Maria received a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona in Fall 2021. Prior to starting her 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, Maria was the Atmospheric Physics of Exoplanets Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

“We knew that photochemical hazes exist on exoplanets, but nobody had examined what they do in three dimensions. We had only one-dimensional models, which cannot describe the weather of a planet fully.”