Discoverer of the first exoplanet
On October 6, 1995, Michel Mayor and PhD. student Didier Queloz announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi approximately 51 light years from Earth. This was the first exoplanet ever discovered.
Mayor’s initial area of study in the 1960’s was of the velocity distribution of stars near our solar system. The research involved calculating the radial velocity of the stars.
The development in the late 1980’s of the spectrograph ELODIE allowed radial velocities to be measured to 10 meters per second. Using ELODIE, Mayor began to study 51 Pegasi.
In 1994 Mayor and Queloz found movements in 51 Pegasi that could only be accounted for by the presence of another planet.
Quoting Dr. Mayor:
“At the end of our first season measuring with the ELODIE spectrograph, we noted that the velocity of the star 51 Pegasi showed a periodic variation which could be interpreted as that caused by the influence of a planet: a planet of a smaller mass than that of Jupiter.”
The discovery contradicted several assumptions held by astronomers particularly with respect to the existence of such objects at all and the length of a plant’s orbit around its star. Their discovery orbited its star in just over four days, something previously thought impossible.
Dr. Mayor earned a Master’s Degree in Physics at the University of Lausanne in 1966, and a PhD. In astronomy at Geneva University in 1971.
Mayor went on to discover additional exoplanets using ELODIE and later HARPS.
Mayor is the recipient of Switzerland’s Marcel Benoist Prize in recognition of his work and its significance for human life, Prix Jules Janssen from the French Astronomical Society, Balzan Prize and the Albert Einstein Medal and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy. Mayor was made a knight of the French Legion d’Honneur in 2004.