An outstanding University of Leicester scientist has won a prestigious £1.4 million award dedicated to ambitious and innovative projects.

Dr Richard Alexander, from the Department of Physics & Astronomy’s Theoretical Astrophysics Group, has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant for his project “Building planetary systems: linking architectures with formation”.

Consolidator grants are awarded to outstanding mid-career researchers with “ambitious and innovative” projects. These excellent scientists were awarded a total of €585 million, as part of the European Union Research and Innovation programme Horizon 2020. With grants worth up to €2 million each, they will be able to consolidate their research teams and to develop their innovative ideas.

The grant, which is worth £1.4 million (€1.95 million) over five years, will allow Dr Alexander to build a team of post-doctoral researchers within the Department of Physics & Astronomy. This award builds on the department’s existing expertise and achievements in this field, and the team will exploit our excellent high-performance computing facilities in order to construct detailed simulations of how planetary systems are assembled.

Dr Alexander said: “The last few years have seen an explosion in our knowledge of extra-solar planetary systems. However, this dramatic increase in our knowledge has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in our understanding: we still don’t know where planets form, when planets form, or how planets form.

“BuildingPlanS will provide the theoretical link between observed architectures of exoplanet systems and their formation in protoplanetary discs. My team will build a large suite of state-of-the-art computer simulations, in order to understand the processes that shape planetary systems as they form and evolve over billions of years. We will then test this understanding against both new observations of planet-forming discs and our ever-growing census of exoplanetary systems. The overall aim of BuildingPlanS is to link exoplanet architectures with their formation, and establish a global picture of how planetary systems are built.”

Head of Physics and Astronomy Professor Paul O’Brien said: “Richard is an acknowledged expert in the field of extra-solar planets, and this high-profile award will enable him to greatly advance our understanding of the wide variety of planetary systems.”

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Martin Barstow, Head of Science and Engineering at Leicester, added: “I would like congratulate Richard on receiving this prestigious European award. The study of the formation and evolution of planetary systems orbiting other stars is one of the most exciting topics in astronomy and this grant will develop a leadership role for Richard and the University in this area.”

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “As part of Horizon 2020, the ERC funds the work of some of the most brilliant minds in frontier research, people whose discoveries can start new industries, new markets and contribute to the welfare of the planet.”

The President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said: “The Consolidator grants support researchers at a crucial time of their careers, strengthening their independence and helping them establish themselves as leaders in their scientific fields. Europe needs to unequivocally put its trust in young and very engaged scientists.”