What do you think is the secret of success for the Nobel Prize?
You might think it's just luck: you take a telescope, look at a star and the discovery is made. In this case, it was just the opposite, not a coincidence at all. Over the years, with great persistence and care, Michel Mayor developed a measuring technique to determine the motion of stars. With his first instrument, CORAVEL with which I worked, the measuring precision was a few kilometres per second. The instrument ELODIE, which found the exoplanet 51 Pegb in 1995, had an accuracy of 10 meters per second, HARPS brought this to 1 meter per second, and the latest instrument in the family ESPRESSO at the VLT in Chile today brings it to 10 centimeters per second.
Like you, Didier Queloz was Michel Mayor's PhD student a few years later. What was his task?
The team at the time was very small and so Didier was doing a lot of things but in particular, his tasks was to develop the proper software to drive the ELODIE instrument and record its measurements. Of course, he also did measurements with it at the Observatory of Haute- Provence in the South of France. In contrast to the American competitors, the Swiss were given a first evaluation of the star’s velocity immediately after each measurement. When they saw a star whose velocity changed from one night to the next, it was clear that something was going on and they continued to observe the star. Also later Didier, as a top scientist, has remained actively involved in developing instruments to study exoplanets.
What does this Nobel Prize mean for the NCCR PlanetS?
It is a recognition of the relevance of the research area. This means that exoplanet research has finally been stamped "important". The impact of the discovery by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz was enormous. Instruments, telescopes, research teams and entire centres with planetary research as their scientific theme were established all over the world. PlanetS would not exist without this discovery. Michel Mayor is a member of our advisory board, Didier Queloz is chairman of the scientific team of the CHEOPS mission. Their Nobel Prize strengthens our position. The international standing of Swiss planetologists will certainly increase even more now. The award also proves that in Switzerland our education system works well. The two laureates are Swiss, have attended school and studied here and didn't have to go abroad to do their research, because the funding of science here also allows developments that require years to come to fruition.
Will anything change for Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz?
They both live on another planet now. They are now playing in the Champions League and will be quite busy with media enquiries for a while. The only thing that makes me a little nervous is the question whether Didier Queloz will still have enough time to take care of CHEOPS, we really need him!