Research to investigate the origins of Earth


An astrophysicist at the University of Leeds has been awarded a five-year fellowship to answer one of the most fundamental questions in science – how do planets form? 

Research Fellow Dr John Ilee, in the School of Physics and Astronomy, will use theoretical models and observations from deep in space to try and understand the processes that happen in the protoplanetary discs that swirl around a newly forming star – to help determine if there are other solar systems like ours.

He has been awarded an Ernest Rutherford Fellowship, named after the physicist whose groundbreaking research explained the structure of atoms and radioactivity. The Fellowship is awarded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).  

It’s a very exciting time for research into planet formation at the moment, and I am really pleased that I will be able to contribute.

Dr John Ilee, Physics and Astronomy

Dr Ilee said: “I was absolutely delighted and honoured to find out I would be an Ernest Rutherford Fellow. 

“It’s a very exciting time for research into planet formation at the moment, and I am really pleased that I will be able to contribute to what I am sure will be fascinating discoveries using the latest ground-and spaced-based observatories.” 

Professor Mark Thomson, STFC Executive Chair, said: “STFC continues to encourage talented early-career researchers in their ambitious goals in the fields of experimental and theoretical particle physics, astronomy, nuclear physics and accelerator physics.

“Our new Ernest Rutherford fellows represent a diverse cohort of outstanding researchers from both within the UK and also from overseas, and they will join and enhance the UK's world-class programmes in physics and astronomy.”

Protoplanetary discs 

Dr Ilee’s research will focus on the processes in the protoplanetary discs that form around new forming stars. 

The discs, which are made of dense gas, dust and ice, provide the chemical building blocks from which planets form.  

Research has so far focused on the outer regions of protoplanetary discs which are believed to be responsible for generating the raw material for large planets to develop, such as Jupiter and Saturn. 

Activity on the inner regions of protoplanetary discs is involved in the formation of smaller planets. 

Latest facilities

Dr Ilee said: “Studying these discs gives us unique insights into the raw material that goes on to form planets and can answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe.  

“Is our Solar System rare? What types of planets are commonly formed? Where and how do planets inherit their composition?” 

The research will use the latest observational facilities, including the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope and two ground-based radio telescopes: the ALMA telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile and the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope, with antennae in South Africa and Australia. 

Previous research led by Dr Ilee has involved using radio telescopes to observe planet-forming discs around young stars and identify precursor molecules to those potentially needed for biological life.

Further information 

For media enquiries email University of Leeds Press Officer Lauren Ballinger at

Top image: John Ilee