Stellar, Interstellar and Planetary Astrophysics

Stellar, Interstellar and Planetary Astrophysics

How do stars form out of the gas and dust in the Galaxy, and what happens in the space between the stars? How do planets form, function, and evolve? How do the Sun and other stars drive their evolution?  
At KIPAC, we study the processes that govern the formation of stars and their planetary systems. This means deciphering the magnetic, turbulent, multi-phase interstellar medium out of which the stars are born. Research has now shown that almost every star in the galaxy hosts its own planetary system, many very different from our own Solar System. Understanding the distributions and demographics of these planets helps inform theories for how planets — including our own planet Earth — form and evolve. At KIPAC, we work to directly detect and characterize these exoplanets. Closer to home, KIPAC scientists are studying the physics of our closest star, the Sun.  


The last few decades have seen a revolution in discovering and measuring the properties of planets around stars outside our Solar System, or exoplanets. Many techniques detect planets indirectly — by searching for the effects of the planet on its host star’s brightness or velocity — but at KIPAC, scientists focus on directly detecting exoplanets. Planets are hundreds of thousands to billions of times fainter than their host stars, making them nearly impossible to detect directly. This task is equivalent to spotting the light of a firefly sitting on the lens of a lighthouse from a distance of a kilometer away! The Exoplanet Group at KIPAC operates a revolutionary instrument called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), which is equipped with sophisticated technology to block out the light of the parent star and separate the planetary signal. KIPAC scientists used GPI to discover the exoplanet 51 Eridani b, and GPI has detected many other young giant planets in the outskirts of distant stellar systems.

Astrophysical Magnetism and the Interstellar Medium

The interstellar medium (ISM) is the stuff between the stars in our Galaxy. The matter in the ISM spans an enormous range of physical conditions, from hot, tenuous plasma to the cold, dense molecular clouds that are the birthplaces of stars. KIPAC scientists study a diverse range of interstellar phenomena, with an emphasis on understanding the magnetic fields that pervade the ISM. The ISM and Cosmic Magnetism Group at Stanford is tackling open questions like the structure of the Milky Way’s magnetic field, the nature of interstellar turbulence, and the role of magnetism in star formation.

Solar Physics

KIPAC members within the Stanford Solar Observatories Group conduct observational and theoretical research on the physics of the Sun. They study important solar characteristics ranging from the violent processes in the Sun's core to the source of variations in the solar wind, with a particular emphasis on understanding solar variability. A key area of research is determining the cause of the Sun's 11-year sunspot cycle and how it impacts the Earth. The group has played a major role in the development and operations of various Earth-bound and space-based instruments and uses data from these instruments to conduct both observational and theoretical research. Their research efforts on the dynamic solar processes have real-world consequences for the Earth, such as the occurrences and frequencies of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can damage satellites and disrupt communications.