Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Britt Scharringhausen and her students are getting to experience Saturn in a completely unique way.
For the last five years, they have been studying data provided by the Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the sixth planet. Whereas other astronomers are observing the F ring from above, Scharringhausen and her students are the only ones studying the F ring from its side.
The imaging team for the uncrewed Cassini spacecraft is made up of astronomers from various institutions who notify Scharringhausen of upcoming opportunities to observe ring plane crossings. The students then download the data to their laptops and use a programming language called IDL (Interactive Data Language) to measure the positions of Saturn’s moons and the brightness of the rings at different times and locations.
As for Scharringhausen, she builds computer models of the rings, including the F ring, in order to study how light passes through them and to determine the thickness of the F ring.
The reason why it’s important to study the F ring, according to Scharringhausen, is because it gives astronomers a better understanding of how planets form in our solar system as well as other solar systems.
Along the way, the students are learning everything from astronmetry (the branch of astronomy that deals with the positions and motions of celestial objects) to photonometry (the science of the measurement of light). They are also learning to use IDL (a big plus for those applying for the competitive summer programs called Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REUs) and to give presentations as many of her past students have given talks at the Midstates Consortium for Math and Science.
“We almost always see something that we weren’t expecting,” Scharringhausen says of their research. “Saturn is definitely an interesting place dynamically.”