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Astronomy professor, students explore Saturn in unique way

November 20, 2013

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

Britt Scharringhausen, associate professor of physics and astronomy, 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 said of their research. “Saturn is definitely an interesting place dynamically.”  

SOURCE: Britt Scharringhausen is an associate professor of physics and astronomy whose research focus is the vertical structure of the F ring of Saturn. Together with Beloit students, she has designed and analyzed observations of Saturn's rings by the Cassini spacecraft, which currently orbits Saturn. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa and her master of science degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Scharringhausen can serve as a media resource on the following topics: rings and satellites of Saturn and the Cassini mission to Saturn; things happening in the sky (eclipses, meteor showers, comets, visible planets, etc.); uncrewed space missions; astronomy in general (telescopes, seasons, asteroids, planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, the Big Bang, etc.); Mars; weather and climate; and crewed space missions.