Jayne Birkby

2024 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Jayne Birkby

Current Position:
Associate Professor of Exoplanetary Science; Tutorial Fellow in Physics, Brasenose College

University of Oxford

Astrophysics & Cosmology

Recognized for: Detecting water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet – a planet that is out of the solar system – with robust evidence, for the first time, and continuously advancing cutting-edge spectroscopy and imaging techniques for exoplanet research. Birkby’s work accelerates the quest to identify life-signaling molecules like oxygen, methane, water, and carbon dioxide on nearby exoplanets.


Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Astrophysics, Exoplanets, Astrobiology

Previous Positions: 

  • MSci, Durham University (Advisor: John Osborne)
  • PhD, University of Cambridge (Advisor: Simon Hodgkin)
  • Postdoc Fellow, Leiden University, Netherlands (Advisor: Ignas Snellen)
  • NASA Sagan Fellow, Harvard University, USA
  • Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Research Summary:

For centuries, the question of life beyond Earth has captivated human imagination. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of astrophysicists like Jayne Birkby, PhD, this inquiry is no longer confined to speculation. Birkby stands at the forefront of scientific exploration, dedicating her expertise to the development and enhancement of critical technologies that promise to unveil the mysteries of distant exoplanets and, perhaps, signs of extraterrestrial life.

In 2013, Birkby made a groundbreaking announcement – the first detection of water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, with robust evidence. This landmark achievement not only sent shockwaves through the astronomical community, but it also underscored the capabilities of Birkby’s adaption of the High-Resolution Spectroscopy (HRS) technique, which was key to the discovery. Notably, the HRS technique, equipped in ground-based telescopes, has become instrumental in detecting a wide range of molecules in exoplanet atmospheres by eliminating systematic errors and noise from Earth's own atmosphere. Today, many research groups worldwide utilize Birkby’s innovative HRS technique, alleviating the need for costly space telescopes dedicated to exoplanet studies.

Continuing to push technological boundaries, Birkby is spearheading the integration of HRS with high-resolution imaging, collaborating with the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the world's largest ground telescope currently under construction. Anticipated to commence operations in 2030, this collaboration positions Birkby's techniques as the exclusive means, over the next decade, for detecting life-indicating combinations of molecules, such as oxygen, methane, water, and carbon dioxide, on rocky exoplanets closest to the solar system.

Beyond the search for extraterrestrial life, Birkby employs her pioneering technology to deepen our understanding of exoplanet formation and weather systems. Her work unveils the rich diversity of exoplanets, with unique characteristics that challenge our preconceptions and broaden the horizons of planetary science. Her contributions not only expand our cosmic knowledge but also pave the way for future breakthroughs in the quest for life beyond our solar system.

"We are on a most extraordinary adventure: building great observatories that, for the first time in human history, have the power to find life on other worlds. If life exists in the nearest star systems, we can find evidence for it in our lifetimes."

Key Publications: 

  1. L. van Sluijs, J.L. Birkby, J. Lothringer, et al. Carbon Monoxide Emission Lines Reveal an Inverted Atmosphere in the Ultra Hot Jupiter WASP-33 b Consistent with an Eastward Hot Spot. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical, 2023.
  2. B.J. Sutlieff, J.L. Birkby, J.M. Stone, et al. Measuring the Variability of Directly Imaged Exoplanets Using Vector Apodizing Phase Plates Combined with Ground-Based Differential Spectrophotometry. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical, 2023.
  3. E.F. Spring, J.L. Birkby, L. Pino, et al. Black Mirror: The Impact of Rotational Broadening on the Search for Reflected Light from 51 Pegasi b with High Resolution Spectroscopy. Astronomy & Astrophysics, 2022.
  4. J.L. Birkby, R.J. de Kok, M. Brogi, E.J.W. de Mooij, H. Schwarz, S. Albrecht, I.A.G. Snellen. Detection of Water Absorption in the Day Side Atmosphere of HD 189733 b Using Ground-based High-resolution Spectroscopy at 3.2 μm. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2013.

Other Honors: 

2021Philip Leverhulme Prize, The Leverhulme Trust
2018Starting Grant, European Research Council (ERC)
2014Sagan Fellowship, NASA


In the Media: 

NewScientist Water Spotted in The Atmosphere of Nearby Hot Jupiter Exoplanet

AstronomyNovel Technique Boosts Hunt for Water on Planets Around Other Stars

Physics.orgUKIRT Discovers 'Impossible' Binary Stars

BBC/PBS NOVA Universe Revealed: Alien Worlds