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Dr. Melinda Soares-Furtado

I am an astrophysicist studying stellar clusters, stars, exoplanets, and exomoons. To investigate open questions in these astrophysical subdomains, I draw insights from observational data (photometric and spectroscopic) and computational simulations. I am currently working as a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as a Science Affiliate at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

I will begin a joint tenure-track faculty appointment in the Departments of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Fall 2024. On, Wisconsin!

Scientific Research

Below, I list some of the ongoing research projects that my team is working on. Click here to learn more about the team members contributing to these wide-ranging efforts.

Planetary Engulfment Events
The final fate of a non-negligible fraction of planets is to be engulfed by their host stars. Our research focuses on identifying long-devoured planets via the observational signatures they impart upon the stars that consume them. More specifically, we identify statistically-significant chemical tracers, leveraging these signatures to place constraints on the bulk chemical composition and mass of the destroyed planet. Our team also investigates the process of planetary disassociation, probing the transfer of angular momentum, energy, and mass during the engulfment process.
Links to selected papers on this topic: [a], [b], [c], [d]

Open Cluster Variable Star Investigations
The analysis of variable stars in stellar clusters provides a critical opportunity probe a number of astrophysical phenomena. For example, rotational variables permit an investigation of stellar angular moment evolution in and across systems. What physical mechanisms are responsible for the enhanced/reduced rotation among the outliers within a given system? Pulsational variables provide an opportunity to explore the relationships between stellar structure, stellar activity, age, and mass. Eclipsing binaries (EBs) provide estimates of masses, radii, ages, atmospheres, and the stellar density. Further, cluster EBs enable more stringent tests of stellar evolutionary theory than field binaries. Moreover, cluster variable investigations enable the search for exoplanets among stellar hosts with known ages and compositions. Are the planet occurrence rates and orbital architectures among cluster members distinct from those of field stars? Links to selected papers: [a], [b]

The Search for Young Exomoons
Leveraging the infrared capabilities of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, it is possible to probe for transiting exosatellites in young star-forming regions. One such region, the Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC), is densely populated and extremely young (1-3 Myr), harboring a large number of infrared-bright brown dwarfs (BDs) and free-floating planets (FFPs). Our team has investigated the expected transit yields of a 30-day survey of the ONC. Our preliminary findings suggest that Roman would discover approximately 14 exomoons/exosatellites transiting FFPs and 54 exosatellites transiting BDs. Future Science: We are exploring yields in other star-forming regions and assembling the science goals that would be enabled by a time-domain infrared investigation of young, star-forming regions with Roman. Links to selected papers: [a]

The Detection and Characterization of Young Exoplanets
Despite the discovery of over 5,000 exoplanets, the census of young Earth-sized worlds remains scarce. Those discovered offer critical insights that enhance our knowledge of the formation and evolution of rocky planets. Our team recently detected and characterized the nearest Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star. This newly-discovered world is the third planet found in this system, and it closely orbits its stellar host with a period of 4 days. Notably, the host star is a member of a 400 Myr stellar association (10x younger than our own planet). Future Science: Given the fact that the planet transits its host star, there is a valuable opportunity to further characterize this system via follow-up observational investigations. Our team is working to better understand the physical/atmospheric properties of this young world. We are also working to detect more young Earth-sized planets in nearby stellar associations.

The Ursa Major Moving Group: Planet Searches, Age-Dating, and Spectroscopy
The Ursa Major Moving Group (UMa) is one of the closest young stellar moving groups to our planet. In fact, the Earth is embedded within this system, which means that moving group members can be found in both hemispheres! Due to its proximity and the relatively young age of its stars and exoplanets, UMa serves an invaluable test bed for the study of stellar and planetary evolution in its early stages. Our team recently detected an Earth-sized planet transiting a Sun-like UMa star in this system (the closest young Earth-sized planet found to date). In an effort to unveil more young UMa exoplanets, it is critical to update the catalogue of known UMa members, which is largely incomplete. Our team will analyze ground-based spectroscopic data in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres to accomplish this very feat. In addition to searching UMa members for exoplanets, we will provide a more accurate estimate of the age of this young system.