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Preeti Cowan

Dr Preeti Cowan (self-supplied).

2023: Dr Preeti Cowan at Waipapa Taumata Rau the University of Auckland has been awarded a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for research titled ‘Discovering distant worlds in our solar system with deep learning’

Our stellar backyard is teeming with ‘small worlds’, remnants from the Solar System’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. Among the most distant of these small worlds are the trans-Neptunian objects that orbit the Sun past Neptune. These icy bodies are small and hard to detect but can offer key insights into how planetary systems form. Large scale astronomical surveys use digital cameras on major telescopes to scan the night sky for trans-Neptunian objects, producing several terabytes of data. However, processing this data to detect trans-Neptunian objects is a significant logistical challenge – one that Dr Cowan plans to solve.


OuterSolarSystem chiisai

The outer Solar System including the Kuiper Belt, which contains a vast store of icy trans-Neptunian objects (credit: NASA).

In this Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr Cowan will build and train machine learning ‘neural network’ models that can better detect faint trans-Neptunian objects in large imaging datasets, including a survey with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Neural networks teach computers to process data in a way inspired by the human brain, with the potential for accuracy and performance to be improved through training. These new models will significantly lower the time and effort required to detect trans-Neptunian objects, ultimately improving our understanding of these important small worlds.