The Planet Formation Lab

We're a group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT studying the formation of planetary systems. Our focus is on understanding the physical processes which form planets, the chemical complexity of the materials from which they form, and a characterization of their birth environment. We approach this from both observational and theoretical standpoints, using a wide range of ground- and space-based observatories, as well as state-of-the-art numerical simluations.

Use the links to the side to learn more about who we are and what we do!


When, where and how do planetary systems form? These are the sort of questions the Planet Formation Lab aims to answers. To tackle these quetsions we use a combination of ground and space-based observatories and state-of-the-art numerical simulations. By combining multi-wavelength observations with cutting-edge theoretical models, we are able to start piecing together the planet formation process and understand the origins of our own Solar System.

Planets, both those within our Solar System and beyond, form in protoplanetary disks, residual material from the star formation phase which settles around a newly formed star. As such, a vast majority of our work utilizes sub-mm interferometric observations from ALMA to trace the gas and dust present in these disks, allowing us to characterize the physical and chemical conditions in which planetary systems form, yielding critical insights to the beginnings of planetary systems. Such observations can be confronted with theoretical models of the (magneto-)hydrodynamical and chemical evolution of the gas to understand the relative importance of competing processes.

In addition to studying the formation environment, we search for evidence of planets which have only recently been formed. These planets are still embedded in their natal protoplanetary disk, making their detection extremely challenging. Observatories such as JWST, or ground-based counterparts like the VLT or Magellan telescopes, provide the best opportunities to detect emission from these elusive planets, and are routinely used by The Planet Formation Lab for this purpose. The exoALMA project, led by Prof. Teague, provides an alternative approach and aims to detect embedded planets through their influence on their parental protoplanetary disk.

Group Members

We are always on the lookout for people to join the group. To find out about any opportunities, please reach out to Prof. Teague. If you are interested in applying for graduate program at EAPS, please first familiarize yourself with the information on the page about graduate emissions from MIT's Office of Graduate Education.

Group Leader

Prof. Richard Teague

Richard Teague is an Assistant Professor in MIT's EAPS and currently holds the Kerr-McGee Development Chair. He works primarily with sub-mm interferometric observations of protoplanetary disks with a view to unveiling the planet formation process. Prior to starting at MIT, he studied for his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and worked at the University of Michigan and at the Harvard & Smithsonian | Center for Astrophysics as a Submillimeter Array Fellow.

Graduate Student

Jensen Lawrence

Jensen is a first-year PhD student in EAPS at MIT. He's interested in combining the physics of protoplanetary disks and exoplanet astronomy to better understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems. In his current project, he's working to directly detect the CO snowlines of the exoALMA disks. He is also interested in planetary climates and planetary surface processes. Outside of research, he enjoys exploring nature, studying other languages, and reading.

Postdoctoral Researchers

Dr. Marcelo Barraza-Alfaro

Marcelo is a postdoctoral researcher, having earned a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. His research interest is gas turbulence in planet-forming disks and its observational signatures.

Dr. Lisa Wölfer

Lisa's research is focused on the environment of young planets, also known as protoplanetary disks. She is particularly interested in the gas substructures and dynamics of those disks and how they relate to the physical, chemical, and planet forming processes. For this, she combines observations of molecular species in disks with different modeling techniques. Moreover, she has experience with hydrodynamical simulations. Lisa received her PhD in March 2023 from Leiden Observatory with promotors Prof. Ewine van Dishoeck and Prof. Barbara Ercolano. Her thesis titled “Ingredients of the planet-formation puzzle: Gas substructures and kinematics in transition discs” can be downloaded here.

Undergraduate Students

Erin Cusson

Erin is a sophomore at MIT majoring in physics and minoring in astronomy. She is broadly interested in observational astronomy and astrophysics and has experience with exoplanet candidate observation. She is currently working on characterizing the chemical complexity of a large protoplanetary disk and exploring the features of early planet formation.

Anika Nath

Anika is a junior at MIT, double majoring in EAPS and Physics. She is interested in modeling planetary formation and astrophysical phenomena in order to understand more about the history of the universe. Currently she is working on numerical simulations of vortices in protoplanetary disks.

In the News

Here's a selection of scientific press releases which feature work from members of the Planet Formation Lab. Click the titles to see the original press release.

Exotrojans in the PDS 70 System 7/2023
In this work led by Olga Balsalobre-Ruza, we find evidence for 'exotrojans', analogues of the Trojan asteroids in our own Solar System, in the PDS 70 system. Such trojans should settle in clumps a little ahead and a little behind an orbiting planet in Lagrange points. In combination with the work of Dr. Feng Long, this suggests that exotrojans provide a powerful method for locating unseen exoplanets.
Astronomers spot a star swallowing a planet! 5/2023
Led by Kishalay De, this work reports the fist detection of an infrared transient which is interpreted as a dying star engulfing a Jupiter mass planet orbiting it. This is the fate for a majority of stars, including our own Sun, and should be a relatively common occurance in the Galaxy. Our on Earth is likely to under go a similar fate far in the future.
ALMA Makes First-Ever Detection of Gas in a Circumplanetary Disk 8/2022
In work led by Jaehan Bae we were able to make the first detection of gas in a circumplanetary disk, AS 209b, only the third circumplanetary disk to be discovered. This detection used the archival MAPS data and was found in both 12CO and 13CO emission. With a detection of gas to hand we have a unique opportunity to probe the mass content of a moon forming disk and understand the temperature structure of the disk.
First Results from the MAPS Large Program 9/2021
We released the first 20 papers from the Molecules with ALMA at Planet-forming Scales (MAPS) collaboration. This Large Program, lead by PI Karin Öberg and co-PIs Yuri Aikawa, Ted Bergin, Vivi Guzman and Catherine Walsh, explored the chemical context of five protoplanetary disks at an unparalleled spatial resolution and sensitivity. The results from this program range from the mapping of the 3D structures of disks, to probing the C/O ratios across the disks and searching for kinematical substructures driven by embedded planets.
First Clear Detection of a Moon-Forming Disc Around an Exoplanet 7/2021
This work builds upon our previous detection of circumplanetary material in PDS 70. By combining several data sets we were able to achieve an unparalleled sensitivity and angular resolution to spatially resolve a circumplanetary disk around PDS 70c. No only do these observations provide definitive proof of circumplanetary disks, but allow for the first measurements of their size and mass content.
Gas Waterfalls Reveal Infant Planets around Young Star 10/2019
Building on the previous kinematical detection of planets, we showed in this work how to extract 3D velocity structures from observations. This allowed us to detect 'meridional flows' around the three previously detected planets. These flows can transport of material from the chemical rich atmospheric regions of a disk down to the still-forming planets, allowing us to inventory atmosphere-building material first hand.
Moon-Forming Circumplanetary Disk Discovered in Distant Star System 7/2019
In this work we presented the first tentative evidence for a sub-mm detection of circumplanetary disks, moon-forming material that surrounds a newly born planet. PDS 70 was known to host (at least) two planets based on near infrared observations, however these observations provided the first evidence for the long hypothesized circumplanetary disk.
Trio of Infant Planets Discovered around Newborn Star 6/2018
Here, we were one of two teams to simultaneously demonstrate we can detect exoplanets by their influence on the gas dynamics in their parental disk. We demonstrated a new method to measure the rotation velocities of the disk to a meters-per-second precision, enough to witness deviations driven by two Jupiter mass planets.
Probing the 3D Structure of a Protoplanetary Disk 2/2017
This work was the first to demonstrate a ringed structure in molecular emission which was coincident with a gap previously detected in the same grains probed by near infrared observations. The data, both at sub-mm and NIR wavelengths, were able to be reproduced with the presence of a planet at 90au in the disk of TW Hya.