Rising star in astronomy: Adrian Price-Whelan

His work has implications for both the prevailing models of dark matter and the insights that can be gathered from observations of our galaxy.
By | Published: January 6, 2023 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
The Simons Foundation

As the Sun rose over Manhattan on April 25, 2018, Adrian Price-Whelan sat in a room full of astronomers on the third floor of the Flatiron Institute, a research hub for computational science. Adrenaline coursed through him as he and collaborator Ana Bonaca delved into the massive dataset that had been released by the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission just moments before. The data detailed the positions of 1.7 billion stars in and around the Milky Way.

Like many astronomers, Price-Whelan had spent years preparing for this moment. “I had been building toward the Gaia data releases for my entire Ph.D.,” he says.

Still, Bonaca and Price-Whelan’s success hinged on a hunch — albeit an extensively researched one. Theoretical models developed in the years leading up to the release suggested that the strung-out remnants of smaller galaxies devoured by the Milky Way might contain discernible traces of dark matter that had passed through them. Dark matter, which is thought to comprise some 85 percent of the universe’s total mass, has never been directly observed. Price-Whelan hoped that its stellar footprint would provide insight into its properties and behavior.

“We did some very simple data selections within hours of the data becoming public and saw what looked like one of these features that we saw in the simulations,” he says. “We were completely stunned.”

In the years since, Price-Whelan and his collaborators have published a series of landmark papers describing the evidence for these enigmatic disruptions in the outskirts of the Milky Way. His work has implications for both the prevailing models of dark matter and the insights that can be gathered from observations of our galaxy.

At 33, Price-Whelan is now a prominent computational astrophysicist and holds a position as an associate research scientist at the Flatiron Institute. Much of his work connects theoretical science to empirical data. With this approach, he is expanding the conclusions that we can come to by looking through a telescope.

But he’ll be the first to tell you that his path there was winding. “I was always interested in science, but I never thought I’d actually get to be a scientist,” he says.
He was set on studying lighting and sound for the stage when he enrolled at New York University in 2006, but a physics class caught his attention and diverted his course. After completing his undergrad studies, he was captivated by astronomy through a role at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. He vividly remembers visiting the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, where the survey is based, that year.

“I met these eminent names in the field — people like Connie Rockosi and Jim Gunn — but I had no idea who they were,” he says. “I loved that the survey was this very intricate, official project with big, beautiful data releases, but they still fixed things with duct tape and grease.”

Today, Price-Whelan is most fascinated by the spiral-like patterns that reverberate through the Milky Way when it is struck by a satellite galaxy. Though this occurrence has been modeled, it has not been observed directly. He hopes to see evidence in yet another upcoming data release from the Gaia mission.

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